Tuesday, January 26, 2010

In Which I tell a Story

My brother and I entered a short story contest through NYC Midnight, and I had a week to write a story of no more than 2,500 words in the genre of historical fiction. The assigned topic was "a dare." Here's what I came up with.


The Ball

Civility goes by the wayside when a normally reserved young woman runs into her erstwhile boyfriend's mother. 

Margaret woke up with a lump in her throat and a gnawing suspicion that she'd done something untoward the night before. She sat up with a start. Oh good heavens, she thought. It wasn't something she'd done, but something she'd promised to do.

She looked over at Pamela, still sleeping beside her, and wondered how on earth she would get through the day. Although Margaret was not generally given to impulsive behavior, she had a competitive streak a mile wide, and one that her mother often scolded her for indulging.

Unfortunately, when her cousin Fanny was concerned, Margaret usually couldn't resist.

"Pamela," Margaret said, nudging her sister. "Wake up. Wake up at once!"

"What?" Pamela stirred. A deep breath. "Is this pertaining to whatever you and Fanny were whispering about last night? You know we all noticed, even father."

"Well, I'm afraid I've done it this time. She's pushed me too far, she has!"

"Oh come on, then. Out with it. If you're going to wake me up for this you might at least let me in on what's going on," Pamela said. She drew her dressing gown around her as she got out of bed and smoothed her hair, which was puffy from the night's rest.

Margaret stood at the window, pulling at her hands and shifting her weight from foot to foot. "It's just. It's about the ball tonight."

"Oh of course, it must be about the ball." At 24, Pamela was a veteran of balls, and although she was looking forward to the evening, it was with less optimism than her younger sister. The last ball she'd attended had turned mortifying when she inadvertently stepped to another partner after a particularly complicated dance turn. She'd insisted her father practice steps with her for several nights over the previous week to avoid another such debacle. She wasn't getting any younger, after all.

"Well, you know how Fanny can be so insufferable. She knows she'll be better dressed tonight. I certainly know she will. That it should even be in question is ridiculous! And I daresay if our father had 10,000 pounds a year we'd be better dressed, too. But no matter, being Fanny, she's gone and made me enter a pact with her that whichever one of us is deemed to have the least flattering outfit will have to complete a dare."

"Margaret! A dare! What on earth were you thinking?" Pamela said. "For one thing, that's completely silly - how could such a thing even be determined?"

"I know, I know, it was so wicked of me. But I simply cannot back down from her! If I had not accepted she would not have stopped talking about it for weeks! We've determined that Mrs. Dudley shall be the one to decide."

"Mrs. Dudley!" Pamela couldn't help but laugh. "Well, I suppose if you must go about subjecting to yourself to such derision, Mrs. Dudley will do the job rather entertainingly."


Mrs. Dudley, the preacher's wife, had a well-earned reputation for being unable to hold her tongue in her later years. Most recently she'd pronounced the new baby of one of the town of Shropshire's most well-to-do families as looking "fresh from the bog."

"Pamela, don't you want to know what the dare is?," Margaret said. Pamela, who was now making the bed, motioned with her hand for Margaret to keep going. "Whoever loses has to ask Mr. Crawford to dance."

Pamela paused briefly before resuming straightening the pillows. "Asking a gentleman to dance! Have you lost your mind? And Mr. Crawford?," she inquired. "How did he get wrapped up in this? The poor man will be lucky if he even manages to make it through the door without being pecked to death by his mother."

"Well," Margaret tittered. "He's just so maddeningly silent. We're not even sure he can dance! And he is after all an eligible bachelor with 5,000 pounds a year. Socially challenged or not, Fanny and I mean to find out whether he has any hope of being a viable one is all. And it will make such good practice for proper courtship!"

"Fair enough, I suppose," said Pamela. She was old enough to know that there were things more important than dancing. "But I don't expect you'll have an easy time with it."

"What, are you assuming I'll be deemed the less attractive? I'll turn it out just fine, velvet and lace ribbons or no!" At 16, Margaret Woodhouse had fine features and a rosy complexion that was the envy of Shropshire. Fanny Croft, on the other hand, while certainly lovely, didn't quite draw the attention the blond haired Margaret commanded. The girls were the same age, but Fanny, a redhead, possessed an elegance that was on the whole more contrived than Margaret's, much of whose allure arose from a warmth and playfulness of spirit.

"Of course not, darling," Pamela said. "I'm assuming that Fanny won't hold up her end of the pact is all."

Margaret smiled. "We shall see about that."

The day passed slowly but at last the girls wrapped up their sewing and reading and began to prepare for the ball. They were to ride to the nearby Chatsworth estate via the carriage of Fanny's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Croft, who would also serve as their chaperones. 

"Pamela," Margaret said as she spun around in front of her sister, "do you think I'll pass muster?"

Pamela looked up and gave her a thorough once over. Though not quite as luminous as her younger sister, she had her own reputation as a dark and intimidating beauty with an intellect to match. "You look as lovely as I've ever seen you," she said, casting an admiring gaze on Margaret's stylish take on a blue column dress. "And I believe all your attention to sewing has paid off." Margaret hugged her sister and held out her hands to her. "And you, Pamela, you look so gay! I am so happy to see it!"

Pamela blushed. She'd picked out a dress of the palest silver, which she hoped it would provide a lightening effect to contrast her black eyes and hair. She smiled and looked away. "I do sometimes try, you know."

"I know you do, I know! And you do succeed."

The carriage ride passed quickly as the five chattered in anticipation. Fanny wore a long gown of moss green velvet that was sure to draw many compliments. Despite their rivalry, she and Margaret held hands throughout the journey. Whatever the outcome of their competition, they would enjoy themselves.

Pamela, on the other hand, grew more and more anxious with each clop of the horses' hooves. She had not admitted it to her sister, but she was more than a little curious about whether Mr. Crawford could or would dance. Perhaps he wasn't a noted conversationalist, but he was indeed an eligible bachelor, and it had not ever escaped Pamela's notice.


What Margaret didn't know was that he and Pamela had conducted a brief courtship the year prior that was known to only the two of them and his mother. In Pamela's estimation, the pernicious Mrs. Crawford had been the problem - after Henry Crawford's older sister had gotten married and moved north, the widower Mrs. Crawford had selfishly insisted that Henry pay her undue attention, and was always inventing tasks and errands that took up any free time he should have had for courting. She knew that if Henry married, his wife would become head of the Crawford estate, and she did not intend to give up stewardship of her home. Mr. Crawford, it seemed, could not see through this and as Pamela couldn't figure out a way to tactfully point it out without him raising objections, their courtship had come to an end when he failed to meet her as promised for a morning walk the previous September.

They found the ball in full procession when they arrived, and the girls set off in search of Mrs. Dudley. Pamela looked around and didn't see any sign of Mr. Crawford, which prompted both relief and disappointment. She vowed to keep her eyes open for other prospects.


She followed close behind Fanny and Margaret, whom she overheard making a scathing remark about a girl from a neighboring town whose frock was deemed plain and uninspiring. At last they came upon Mrs. Dudley, who was tucking into a bread pudding and ignoring the woman standing next to her, whose back was turned. Just as the girls came upon the ladies, Mrs. Dudley's friend turned around and Pamela was unnerved to discover the companion was none other than Mrs. Crawford, the corners of whose mouth turned slightly upward in a tight little smile when she spotted Pamela.

"Hello Mrs. Dudley," Margaret started, with a curtsy to the old woman. "Is it not a breathtaking evening? The first ball of 1813, fancy that!"

Mrs. Dudley smacked the pudding about in her mouth before responding. "Yes, child, and rather better now that I've gotten a spot of nourishment. I feel like I've been on my feet for hours already." Fanny and Pamela curtsied as well as Mrs. Crawford looked on. "You do know Mrs. William Crawford, I'm sure?," Mrs. Dudley asked. "Mr. Henry Crawford is milling about here somewhere, isn't he Mrs. Crawford? Where is he, hiding in the larder?"

Fanny and Margaret stifled a laugh as Mrs. Crawford stiffened and replied, "Certainly he's here. But he's a very busy man now with Mr. William Crawford gone these long years. He has much to do to keep up the household, you know. He's very tired and I don't expect we'll stay long. We have affairs in the morning to attend to."

Fanny, giving her sweetest smile, cast a sideways glance at Margaret before addressing Mrs. Dudley. "Mrs. Dudley, we are wondering if you will do us a small favor. Margaret and I, we've so looked forward to tonight that we've both sworn to do our absolute best to dress for the occasion, and we are wondering if you might decide for us who has put forth the most worthy effort?"

Mrs. Dudley turned her full attention to the girls. "Well, I suppose I might proffer an opinion. But why waste your time with me? I'm quite certain that by the end of the night you'll have your outcome decided by the number of young men who ask you to dance." Mrs. Crawford looked on with interest.

"Oh, but Mrs. Dudley, they can hardly be counted upon to deliver an objective verdict, can they? We need the opinion of a lady!," said Margaret.

Mrs. Dudley began to look the both of them over when Mrs. Crawford interjected, now smiling rather too graciously. "Girls, you two are perfect visions - Ms. Croft, your green dress fits with your red hair and complexion perfectly. And Ms. Margaret, how well the cut of your dress suits your figure." Here she turned and fixed a pointed look upon Pamela, who was standing behind the rivals. "Where I think you might have better focused your attention is on your sister." Pamela, who'd again been searching the room for Mr. Crawford, snapped to attention. "My dear," Mrs. Crawford continued, "I believe you could have used something to make you a little more, well, interesting, don't you think?"

Margaret and Fanny turned to Pamela, who colored slightly from the flash of anger with which she bore the remark. "I'm afraid, Mrs. Crawford, that I haven't the gift for fashion that my sister and cousin possess." The horrid old woman had influenced Mr. Crawford after all!

"Nonsense, dear, you're just about as pretty as the others," Mrs. Dudley said. "So what if you're a good bit older. Surely someone will ask for your hand in a waltz."

Margaret and Fanny took Pamela's hands and led her away, bidding the ladies goodnight as they fled.

"Pamela," Margaret said, laughing, "I am so dreadfully sorry, I didn't expect that to happen. What a miserable woman that Mrs. Crawford is! I'd no idea!"

"Nor I,"  said Fanny. "I always felt she must be a sad woman for having lost her husband too early."

"Well," said Pamela. "I suppose it shows yet again that one never knows what cunning is lurking in the hearts of Englishwomen." The three laughed, but Pamela was seething.

"So," said Margaret, "will you do it?"

"Do what?," said Pamela.

"Don't be daft," Margaret cried. "Will you take the dare? Will you find out once and for all if Mr. Crawford is capable of dancing?" Margaret and Fanny looked on expectantly.

Pamela considered this for a moment. "I daresay I will," she said, to the girls' delight. And with that, they set out for the dancehall.

She spotted him a short while later, standing next to a few other gentlemen of mutual acquaintance. "Margaret," she said, whispering into her sister's ear. "Where is Mrs. Crawford? Do you see her anywhere?"

"Hmmm. Oh! There she is, she's getting two glasses of punch! Oh! now she's heading toward Mr. Crawford!"

"Perfect," said Pamela. She pinched her cheeks quickly and walked over to where he was standing. She could now see Mrs. Crawford heading toward them out of the corner of her eye.

A lady doesn't ask a gentleman to dance, Pamela thought. But then, nor does a lady stand in the way of the natural order of things.

As she sidled up to Mr. Henry Crawford, Ms. Pamela Davenport held out her hand. "Mr. Crawford, it is so lovely to see you," she said. "It's been too long, I think." As she curtsied, she stuck her back foot out ever so slightly more than necessary, causing the approaching Mrs. Crawford to stumble over it and spill her punch out onto her dress and the floor. The gentlemen standing next to them caught her swiftly, but Mr. Crawford, now flustered and more than a little distracted by the sight of Pamela's exposed decolletage, barely registered his mother's slip.

"I don't suppose you could entertain an old friend for a dance, could you?," Pamela said. She turned briefly to smile at Mrs. Crawford as he led her toward the dance floor.


Posted via web from Jane Donuts is Starting Over


Shama said...

Nicely done. If this is ever adapted for the screen, I insist that you don't allow them to cast Keira Knightley.

Jane Donuts said...

Duly noted.