This is another story inspired by the truly wonderful artist Suechan
"Do we have to stay in here?" Victoria asked with a shudder in her voice as she looked around the study. Even in broad daylight, with the sun flooding in through the large window and picking out motes of dust, the room gave Victoria the creeps.
The study belonged to her friend's father, Josiah Machin, a dour old man who had made his fortune by importing luxuries from across the empire. Now retired, he spent his days in the pursuit of collecting artefacts of ancient and modern alchemy. The walls were covered with diagrams and symbols scrawled on paper and ancient papyrus, and the shelves and tables were stacked with books and all manner of strange objects.
From the desk where she sat reading, Marian said. "I won't be long, my dear. I just need to read this and let father know if there is anything to it. I'm sure Mrs Ledbetter will not mind if we are a few moments late."
"Why don't you take a seat." Marian added with a wave of her hand in the direction of a green chaise-lounge that occupied the centre of the room.
With a sigh of resignation Victoria smoothed the skirts of her elegant green dress, with its lace trimmed puff sleeves and high neck. It was the nicest dress that Victoria owned and at her mother's insistence had worn it to make an impression on the not so young Mr Ledbetter. For the same reason she had allowed her mother to dress her hair high, in what her mother took to be the height of fashion.
With her back ramrod straight, Victoria crossed her white gloved hands in her lap and tried not to look at the objects in the room, some of which were, to her mind at least, not much short of pornographic.
Surrounded by all this, It often amazed Victoria that Marian had turned out the sweet young woman she seemed to be. Especially as her father had married late in life to a wealthy, but shy woman who had passed away giving birth to their only child.
The two girls had met 3 years before when they were both 17. They were leaving church the first Sunday after Victoria and her widowed mother had moved to the town from London on account of failing resources, and from that day forward the two had been firm friends and were all but inseparable, and Marian had assumed they would remain so forever.
Then, last Sunday evening, as Marian sat in her drawing room reading, Victoria had come bustling in, obviously excited, not even waiting for the butler to announce her. Marian had put aside her novel and stood to greet her friend, taking her hands and kissing her lightly on each cheek.
"My dear, Victoria, whatever is the matter?" Marian asked, assuming some calamity.
"You'll never guess." Victoria said, and without giving Marian the chance continued. "Mr Ledbetter intends to propose to me. Mrs Ledbetter told my mother after evensong. I've been invited to their house for tea on Thursday."
Marian was shocked, she had no idea that the bumbling James Ledbetter was even aware of Victoria, they certainly had never met whilst Marian was with her, and that was just about the whole time. With that one sentence Victoria broke Marian's heart, although she managed to hide it from her friend, even as she determined that no such union would ever take place.
"I didn't know you knew Mr Ledbetter." Marian finally managed to say, still holding her friends hands in hers, acutely aware of the softness of Victoria's skin.
"I don't." Victoria said with a smile. "But apparently he has seen me in Church and Mrs Ledbetter apparently asked mother if it would be a welcome advance."
"And is it?" Marian asked, finally releasing her friend's hands and turning towards the open fire so that Victoria would not see the water welling in her eye.
"Why of course." Victoria blurted. "The Ledbetter's are quite wealthy, apparently the late Mr Ledbetter made his fortune in the cotton industry somewhere up north."
"And now his son spends it in the south." Marian said, not even bothering to hide the scorn she felt.
"Oh Marian." Victoria said softly as she stood beside her friend by the fire. "Please be happy for me."
Marian blinked away a tear and lied. "Of course I am happy for you. I just don't want our friendship to end."
Victoria smiled as she placed her hand on Marian's shoulder. "Nothing could do that."
Tilting her head slightly, so that her cheek brushed the back of Victoria's milky white hand, Marian kept her own council.
"Will you come with me on Thursday? I know Mrs Ledbetter will be there, but I'd prefer my own chaperone as well." Victoria asked as she withdrew her hand.
Nothing in the world seemed less agreeable to Marian, but already a plan was forming in her mind and so she replied that she would, and that it was getting late and Victoria should get along home before it got too dark.
With a quick peck on her friends cheek in thanks, Victoria left Marian alone once more to stand before the fire, her hand stroking the cheek where she imagined she could still feel Victoria's warm soft lips.
As the plan formed in her mind Marian ran upstairs and flung open her wardrobe door, scooping up great handfuls of gowns and dumping them unceremoniously on the bed.
One by one she picked up each garment, discarding most without a second thought, others she held against herself in front of the mirror until she was left with two.
The first was a beautiful purple velvet with a deep indigo satin sash that offset her blonde hair and pale blue eyes to perfection, but the plain high-necked bodice did not have the effect she desired. That could not be said of her second choice, a light blue silk, with a deeply plunging round neck which had certainly turned heads when she had worn it to the summer ball.
For a few seconds she agonised over her decision, the demure purple or the extravagant blue. Then like a bolt from the blue she knew what she would do. Stopping only to collect her sewing basket she quickly took up both gowns and headed for her workroom.
With all the candelabra lit, 'hang the expense' she thought Marian sat at her workbench and unpicked the seams of both dresses. Using the blue as a pattern she cut the heavy velvet.
With years of practice she was soon sitting with needle in hand stitching the purple dress. She took the sash and cut it thinly and with neat stitches decorated and emphasised the new neckline. Unfortunately this left her with insufficient satin to cinch her waist and so she made the remains into a bow that she sewed into the back of the narrow waist.
Eagerly she tried on her new creation and stood holding her hair high, pleased with the effect she knew she would have on the naïve Mr Ledbetter, for although having no interest in the company of men she was an accomplished flirt when the need arose, and she fully intended to turn on the charm for Mr Ledbetter's benefit. She would she knew, show him that Victoria was not the woman for him, then when he proposed to her she would turn him down, knowing full well that he would not be able in all good conscience to return his attentions to Victoria.
It was, she decided an excellent plan, and so Thursday morning she dressed in her latest finery, coiffed her hair elegantly and used her finest cosmetics to enhance her already attractive features, offsetting her dress with her mother's amethyst and jet beaded choker.
She entered the breakfast room prepared for an inquisition from her father as to why she was dressed so at such an early hour but he didn't even notice, being as he was too engrossed in the daily paper.
A little disappointed at his singular lack of attention Marian helped herself to a plate of kedgeree from the board and sat at the table.
"Another charlatan I expect." Her father said as he folded the paper and turned to his plate of kippers.
"Who is father?" Marian replied, as she poured them both a cup of tea, having already forgiven the old man for his oversight at failing to even notice her dress.
Poking a finger at the paper he said, "This carnival chappy, 'The Great Somnia'. If he's that great you would think he would know 'Somnia' is dreams, not sleep! Anyways he reckons to be able to make people appear to sleep, entrancing he calls it, and whilst they are asleep they carry out commands he gives them. Claims to have been taught by a pupil of Mesmer; another great fraud."
"So?" Marian enquired, "Surely its just a stage show, why get upset about it?"
Josiah put his knife and fork down and turned to his daughter, a slightly raised eyebrow the only indication that he now did notice her attire, but explained. "Because, what I assumed to be a level headed and reputable newspaper has devoted half a page to his claims!"
Marian was intrigued and asked. "May I see, father?"
With a shrug Josiah passed the paper to Marian and stood. "I'm going up to London today. I should be back around midnight. I assume you can amuse yourself."
Marian smiled as she opened the paper, for even if he had stayed she would have had to amuse herself whilst he buried himself in his books. "I'll be fine, father. I told you, me and Victoria are taking tea at the Ledbetter's."
With a nod to indicate that she had told him, but it being of little import he had forgotten it straight away, Josiah left Marian alone.
She quickly found the article that had so enraged her father. Sipping her tea, she started to read, and a new plan sprang to her mind, and so, after finishing her repast, she asked their butler to admit Miss Victoria on her arrival and show her into her fathers study.
"A complete waist of time!" Marian spat from the desk.
"What is, dearest?"
Marian pushed the papers she had been examining away from her as she said. "This stuff my father wanted me to research, a load of old hokum. This man works in the theatre for goodness sake, he must be a charlatan!"
"For one so young you are very cynical. Just because a man makes his living in the theatre doesn't mean he isn't genuine, I mean jugglers can juggle can't they." Victoria said, a harsher edge in her voice than she intended, probably because of her surroundings and her love of the theatre, a joy she was just coming to discover before she was whisked away from London, a fact Marian knew only too well.
Marian turned in her chair, facing Victoria for the first time and bathed in the look of shock on her friends face as she looked at Marian's dress. "I'll grant you that jugglers can juggle and singers can sing; but this man says he can entrance people just by talking to them whilst they fix their eyes on something swung before them."
Victoria was going to say something along the lines of "That doesn't sound like a very entertaining act" but was prevented as Marian ploughed ahead. "And when they are asleep they can open their eyes and it is impossible for them to lie and they will do whatever he tells them to."
Victoria was still not convinced that it would be very entertaining, but she had taken a stance and, just as Marian knew she would, she defended it. "I've heard of something similar out in India; just because we don't understand something doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
"Look I'll prove it can't be done." Marian said, bating the hook.
"You can't prove a negative, just because you can't do something doesn't mean this man can't." Victoria said, pleased with her logic.
"Alright, so you've nothing to lose, If I can't do it, it just means I can't, but if I can, it proves you were correct." Marian said, not trying to show her eagerness and counting on her friends desire to be right.
Victoria bit her bottom lip but said, "All right, but we really should be getting a move on, I don't want to be late for my own engagement. What do we have to do?"
To hide her smile, Marian turned back to the desk and picked up a pendant with small diamonds set around a large ruby, it had belonged to her mother and Marian knew that it was a favourite of Victoria's. "We'll use this as I know you like looking at it." Marian said as she stood beside the arm of the chaise lounge and held the jewel in front of Victoria's wide brown eyes.
Back and forth the pendulum swung as Marian told Victoria that as she watched the necklace she was starting to feel very sleepy. The speed at which Marian spoke and the bauble swung, although in time, was certainly not conducive to relaxing a subject, as Maria from her reading knew all too well. So it was no surprise that after 5 minutes nothing had happened.