INCOGNITO IN CHARACTER
A ball, at last!” Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott sank back into her chair in delight.
At the head table, Mademoiselle Geraldine finished her announcement with a similar collapse, stays heaving with repressed excitement. She would not be attending said ball, as she never left school grounds, but she appreciated that her young ladies of quali-tay were about to engage in a social event of great import. Lady Linette put a gentling hand to the headmistress’s arm, wary of a full infection of flutterings.
It was too late. The school erupted into chatter.
“It’s only Bunson’s,” Preshea Buss said to Dimity. “We know all the boys there, and most of the best prospects have gone on to university.”
“Oh, buck up, Preshea, do. That means fresh meat. You should be thrilled, since you prefer your young men innocent and ripe for the plucking,” shot back Sophronia.
Preshea couldn’t refute that—in a way, it was quite the compliment. So she turned her back on Sophronia and her friends.
Sophronia sipped her tea, feeling victorious, green eyes assessing the reactions of those around her. Dimity’s delight was to be expected. Agatha Woosmoss, their other close friend, was notably reticent when confronted with large gatherings involving the opposite sex. She had very flushed cheeks that suggested interest—or possibly paralytic fear. The debuts were in a tight huddle over the Scones of Iniquity and the Jam of Trepidation. Professor Braithwope was bouncing in his chair like a delighted baby, although he would not be attending. Professor Lefoux’s lip was curled in disgust as she stood to make the supervisory rounds.
“What to wear?” murmured Dimity, rolling a Chelsea bun between thumb and forefinger.
Professor Lefoux pounced. “Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott, what are you doing to that bun? Your fingers are all over sticky. Only look at the crumbs. And you’ve misplaced currants. You should know better.”
Dimity dropped the bun.
Sophronia jumped in. “We are working on a language for crumb and currant communication.”
Professor Lefoux was not fooled. “Indeed? Pray continue.”
“The number and location of the crumbs indicates intent.”
“And the currants?”
“Instructions, of course.”
“And how do you propose to control quantity when utilizing less adhesive bread items?”
“That requires further study.” Sophronia was brazen to the end.
Professor Lefoux sniffed. “Perhaps you should stick to less messy forms of communication. But your inventiveness has merit.”
It was, of course, impossible to tell whether this compliment was directed at the idea of a crumb communication system or whether Professor Lefoux was complimenting Sophronia on coming up with an excuse for Dimity’s mishandling of buns. Whatever the case, Professor Lefoux caught sight of one of the debuts actually tossing her bun at another girl and dashed away without further comment.
Dimity ate her sticky treat before it could result in more unwanted attention. She shoved her empty crumb-covered plate in front of Sophronia. “Go on, then, read them.”
Agatha giggled. “Like Madame Spetuna.”
“What do the crumbs say of my future?” Dimity’s round face was eager.
Sophronia bent over the carnage and muttered, “You shall marry well and live a long and happy life. So long as you avoid all contact with…” She drew out the suspense.
Dimity hung on her words. “Yes?”
“What, the fish?”
“Sturgeon bodes you ill will. Beware, or all will be lost.”
Dimity grinned. “Oh goodness me, how ominous. And how damp.”
Agatha shoved her crumby plate across the table. “Do mine?”
Sophronia assumed a sepulchral tone. “You will cause a stir in high society with your wit and charm.” Agatha blushed. “So long as you allow yourself to speak on occasion. Beware…”
“Oh, good, I’m already quite wary. Do your own fortune?”
“Everyone knows a girl can’t predict her own future.” Out of the corner of her eye, Sophronia watched Professor Lefoux return to her seat. Lady Linette stood and began to move from one tea table to the next. She was making an announcement, gesticulating at each student in turn, and moving on, leaving behind a much quieter and more thoughtful gaggle.
Dimity took Sophronia’s plate. The Chelsea bun atop it was untouched.
Agatha looked bright eyed and inquisitive. “What does it say about our Sophronia, Dimity?”
“That she has terrible taste, and should know when to stop telling fibs and simply eat her bun.”
Agatha and Sophronia were both startled into a laugh.
Dimity ate Sophronia’s bun, since it was clear her friend wasn’t going to accord it gastronomic respect. Then she turned the conversation onto her favorite topic, attire. “So, what will you wear to the ball, Agatha?”
The redhead looked doubtful. She had recently exchanged much of her tubbiness around the middle for endowments further up. Mademoiselle Geraldine was most impressed by what she referred to as Miss Woosmoss’s increased assets and aesthetic abilities. Agatha was mortified. Fortunately, or unfortunately from Agatha’s perspective, she had a father who took a keen interest in the latest fashions—more for what it said about his means than for what it might do for his daughter’s standing. As a result, Agatha had many gowns to choose from.
No one asked Sophronia what she would wear. Her own figure was decent enough and had not shifted substantially during her time at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Fortunate indeed, as she subsisted mainly on her sisters’ castoffs. Those sisters having married away, castoffs were increasingly rare. Sophronia had only one ball gown, and it was a transformation dress that served double duty as her best visiting dress.
Despite her many options, Agatha was a problem. “I’d like to wear the mustard.”
Sophronia suppressed a choke.
Dimity was gentle with their friend. “Oh, but the pale lemon is much more stylish.”
Not to mention more becoming to her complexion, thought Sophronia.
“But the lemon is so very fluffy.” Agatha did not understand that this was a good thing.
Sophronia and Dimity exchanged a look.
“It has a much nicer cut,” Dimity pressed.
“It’s too low!” Agatha fluttered her hands about her chest.
Dimity was wistful. “Exactly! What I wouldn’t give to…” Dimity had tried every remedy for bust improvement that Mademoiselle Geraldine suggested, from massage with a tincture of myrrh, pimpernel, elder-flower, and rectified spirits, to preparations of nux vomica mixed with Madeira, to a diet composed mainly of comforting, breast-pampering foodstuffs. Dimity did not find the diet challenging, as it emphasized pastry, milk, potatoes, and similarly farinaceous foods. However, she was also avoiding tea and refraining from indulging in anger, grief, worry, and jealousy. Emotions, everyone knew, affected the size and quality of one’s endowments. But despite her efforts, nothing had, so far, improved.
“I should give you my share if I could.” Agatha was nothing if not generous.
Dimity was exactly as perceptive as people never gave her credit for. So she stopped pressuring Agatha and said to Sophronia, “You’re very subdued this evening. Are you nervous?”