"Would you look at that, Miss Iris, the sun is shining so brightly and the flowers are all in bloom. Are you really telling me that you would rather be inside, watching me make the beds than out in the gardens surrounding your home, soaking up the sun?"
Iris glanced towards the large window in her bedroom that allowed the natural light to shine brightly across her lovely ivory bedspread, with a small sense of longing in her heart. Maybe she would like to be out there with the sun rays beaming heat down onto her slender shoulders, the idea was a lovely one, but that just was not possible. Not today.
Today she had to stay in the room in isolation, with her fancy oak wood four poster bed, her lovely pale coloured wardrobe which contained all her fancy, barely worn, dresses, and her long decorated mirror. Her safe haven, the only place in the world where she truly felt secure.
"You know how it is, Daisy," she sighed mournfully while fixing her gaze back on the deep blue carpet below her feet. "I am far more comfortable with you up here than I am down there. Especially when my father has so many guests visiting him." Iris folded her arms across her chest and she shuddered lightly. "They will all want to look at me, I cannot stand so many eyes on me at once."
“Well, of course, they will want to see you." Daisy chuckled. "You are from the famous Warwick family, a home with such wealth that it attracts the attentions of all people in polite society. You are also the youngest daughter to Robert Warwick, who probably should be betrothed already since you are nineteen years old. If you were out there, in the world, you would have offers of marriage falling at your feet every single day. Especially when you take a look at yourself. What man wouldn't want to make you his wife?"
Without even meaning to, Iris flicked her gaze to the mirror in front of her, and she examined her appearance closely. Maybe she did not look much in the simple pale blue slip dress she had on because it slipped over her slim frame comfortably, but with her fair hair tumbling down her back in slightly messy waves, her curvy hips, plus her soft, pale porcelain skin, she knew that she could look wonderful if she tried. If she wore any sort of makeup around her large blue eyes, they sparkled, but Iris did not enjoy the sensation of strangers looking into them. That was the same reason she did not paint her lips either.
She could look lovely if she wanted to, but she didn’t.
Ever since Iris unexpectedly lost her wonderful mother to Smallpox when she was only thirteen years of age, she hadn’t spent a lot of time outside, and certainly never away from the grounds of her home. She was extremely close to her mother, she viewed her as her very best friend, and she was also the one person she naively never thought that she would have to say goodbye to. Even when she got sick, Iris allowed herself to believe that everything would be alright.
When the disease finally claimed her mother, it came as a massive shock to all the girls, but Iris especially. She took to her bed and found herself quite unable to move. She could not get up, even for the funeral. Her mood was so low that she actually wished for death herself, just so she could be back with her lovely mother.
When it became obvious that Iris would not be able to shake off her depression anytime soon, her father confined her to the inside of the home where she could feel how she pleased in peace, without threatening the family’s reputation. He did not allow her to attend society functions, even her own sister’s weddings, to ensure that the gossip was kept to a minimum. As a Warwick, appearances had always been extremely important to Robert, and Iris felt that it was even more important because he had not managed to produce any sons to continue on with the family name.
“That is what I’m afraid of,” Iris murmured gratefully. She did not want to attend any society functions, much less get marriage proposals. She was grateful to her father that he kept her inside, even if he didn’t mean it to be a nice thing. She wasn’t ever sure of his intentions because he didn’t speak to her very often at all.
“You are only saying that because of what happened to your sisters.” One of the negative side effects of spending so much time with the servants was that Daisy could now see right through her. She also didn’t hold the same boundaries as most serving staff did with Iris, they had become very close friends. “It will not happen to you.”
“Olivia was widowed at only seventeen years of age. Now she is in ruins, with children to care for. No one else will marry her so she no longer has any hope.” Iris grew impassioned as she spoke. This was a subject that she felt very strongly about. “And Elizabeth is incredibly unhappy with her arrangement. She does not have any feelings for her husband, yet she is expected to produce an heir with him.”
One of the positives of having older sisters was that Iris had been warned of what was expected from her on her wedding night... although she wasn’t sure that she liked the sound of it one bit. She imagined that it would be even worse with someone that she did not like at all. Her sympathies for Elizabeth were endless.
“That is marriage these days,” Daisy shrugged, unperturbed. “One of the disadvantages of being a wealthy lady. You marry for political reasons, or convenience reasons. You do not wed for love.” Daisy glanced out the corner of her eye at the lady she held a lot of love for in her heart. She was well aware of Iris’s sensitive nature and fragile heart, and as the family did not seem to take the duty upon themselves, Daisy felt obliged to toughen her up a bit for the world she would eventually have to face. “I know you have fancy notions from the story books you read, but romance does not count for anything in your world.”
“But it does in yours?” Iris asked with wide eyes. She was desperate for answers, she needed to know how the other half lived because she was so discontent with her own life.
“Sometimes it does, sometimes not.” Daisy’s lips thinned and she returned her gaze back to the folding that she was doing. There seemed to be something behind her eyes, but Iris couldn’t tell what it was. “You seem to think that I have more freedom than you, but it simply is not the case.”
“How so?” To Iris, the shackles of society felt like boulders resting heavily on her shoulders. She had spent a lot of nights lying up at night imagining how her life would be if she did not have the Warwick name. Sure, she would not have the money or the dresses, or even the lovely house to live in, but she also would not have the expectations. To her, that felt like a dream come true.
She could find the man of her dreams, just like the girls in the books that she adored so much. That was a freedom she desired more than anything else in the world. It wasn’t the concept of marriage that she abhorred, she only wanted it if it came with love. Maybe that was naïve, but Iris could not help what she felt.
"Because, Miss Iris, much as I do not mind working in your home since I adore you so much, the work is not always easy. It is an unfortunate side effect of this world that we need money to survive. Now, again, I am not complaining because I know that I am paid well, but still, it limits what I can do." Daisy raised her eyebrows at Iris, wondering if she was getting even a word of this. "I am one and twenty years of age, if I were in your shoes then I would already be wed to some Lord, or a Duke maybe. As it is, I am still here, cleaning up after the Warwick family. Unwed, no romance, no nothing."
This shamed Iris. She felt her cheeks flame a bright red at the slight accusation on Daisy’s tone. It hit Iris that maybe everyone wanted what they did not have. She was not the only one who wasn’t totally happy with what life had handed to her. She wondered if Daisy thought that she was spoiled, that she did not know what she had.
She hated the idea that Daisy would think anything bad about her, she was the only friend that she had in this large, empty home.
“You are beautiful too, Daisy. You should be married.”
Daisy twisted her head away, totally disbelieving Iris’s comments. She had fair hair too, but she always wore it tied back so Iris wasn’t sure how long it was, and a nice figure. She wasn’t as slender, and her cheeks weren’t as lovely, but Daisy definitely had a pretty quality to her. If she was dressed up like a lady, Iris was sure that she’d pass for one with ease.
“Now, Miss Iris, you should go for a ride on one of the horses. You need to get outside, to go for fresh air.” Daisy changed the subject rapidly to prevent any further debate on this sticky subject. Nothing good could come from it. “That is an activity that you can do alone, your land is large enough for you to remain inside. You won’t need an escort, or to face your father’s guests. It’s perfect.”
"Maybe I should," Iris replied half-heartedly. The idea was a nice one, but she wasn't sure if she could face it. Her stomach twisted up in tight knots at the idea of leaving the bedroom that she adored too much. "After lunch."
“Let me guess, you will be dining with me?” Daisy asked with a smirk. “Shall we take lunch in your room again? The same as we have done for the last six years.”
Iris giggled, glad to know that Daisy wasn’t annoyed by the arrangement. Iris had questioned her on it once, she did not want to take her away from the other servants if they were her friends, but Daisy scoffed and insisted that she would much rather spend time with her, and that was the last they’d ever spoken of it.
“Of course, that is the only way.”
As Daisy left her alone while she scurried down the stairs to get lunch organised, Iris braved moving close enough to the window to gaze towards the outside world. She could only do this because she could hear her father and his friends below her, inside the house. If she even suspected for one moment that they might see her, she wouldn’t dare.
She couldn't explain it, even to herself, but the more time that she spent indoors the more she feared being stared at. Six years was a very long time to close herself off from everyone else, but to Iris, she was certain that she could remain that way forever if it came to it.
She soon lost her focus as she glanced over the luscious green of the grass and the bright reds and oranges of the flowers. The trees that lay across her family’s land even blurred into nothingness. Iris’s imagination allowed her to forget that she was in the wonderful, admired Warwick mansion, and instead a beautiful, much smaller castle took its place. Iris became a beggar girl in her mind, a young lady selling flowers. She had nothing but determination and spunk, she saw herself with a bright smile and hardened skin. She was the opposite to the person she was right now.
Then Iris dreamed up a broad shouldered, dark haired gorgeous prince who wanted a peony. He came to her, he asked her for a flower for a beautiful girl which he immediately gave back to her after paying for it, making her feel like the most special girl on the planet.
Her lips inadvertently puckered as she imagined the prince leaning in closer to her, allowing her to get lost in his warm, hazel coloured eyes. There was love in his gaze, the sort of love that she wanted to swim in forever. Then, he leant in closer and he kissed her, causing her heart to stop dead in her chest. She was almost breathless with it, and it wasn't even real...
“Miss Iris?” Daisy had concern in her tone now, which instantly caused Iris to snap her eyes open as if she’d been caught doing something terrible. “Is everything alright? You look... lost.”
Lost. That was the best word to describe Iris’s whole life. She’d been lost for far too long.
“No, I am okay, I was just being thoughtful.” She smiled blandly, desperately hoping that this was the one façade that Daisy could not see through. “Is lunch sorted?”
“The cook is organising it now. It will be up soon.” Daisy sat on Iris’s bedsheets, looking terribly distracted. “I have something to discuss with you, Iris.”
Iris's heart instantly started beating a hundred times faster. She did not need Daisy to say any more for her to understand that this was not going to be good news for her. To brace herself, she took her place on the bed next to her friend.
“What is going on, Daisy?” Without even meaning for it to be there, Iris had a warning tone in her voice. She hated surprises, they terrified her almost as much as the rest of the world did.
“I’m afraid that the horse ride will have to wait.” Daisy gave her an apologetic look, sadness filled her dark blue eyes. “Iris, your father would like to meet with you, once his friends are gone.”
"How... how do you know?" Iris's head began to spin, the world felt unsteady underneath her. She grasped tighter onto the bed sheets just to prevent herself from falling. Her pulse rate thundered as she considered what her father was going to say to her. He never spoke to her unless it was important unless it was business. Something to do with the Warwick name.
This had to be it, the day he forced her out of her depression and her room. He wanted her to get married.
“The butler overheard and he gave me the information to warn you.” All the staff knew about Iris’s delicate temperament. Not all of them knew her as well as Daisy did, but they all liked her well enough. “I do not know what it is about, but I thought it was best for you to be prepared.”
“I know,” Iris whispered clutching onto her stomach. Her appetite was now long gone; she couldn’t imagine wanting to eat ever again. “He has plans for me to leave this house at long last.” She stared at Daisy with all the sheer terror that she felt deep in the pit of his chest. Her pale irises betrayed the depths of her emotions. “I am going to get married.”
Daisy fell into silence. She didn't want to lose Iris, especially as she knew how little she wanted to leave, but this was the one area in which she couldn't have an opinion. What her master wanted to do with his own daughter was his choice, the opinion of a lowly housemaid meant nothing.
She did the only thing that she could and she wrapped Iris up in a hug. At least some physical comfort would help this poor girl who had no real idea of what awaited her.
Iris brushed down the green silk of her dress while running her fingers over the embroidered flowers as she moved her hands downwards. Iris did not enjoy the way that the clothing felt on her one bit. With the stays holding her waist in place, and her hair tied up so tightly it pulled on the skin of her face, Iris felt like she was playing a character. Also, a bit like she was being propped up.
It was ironic for her to feel that way on one of the only occasions when she was dressed like the lady she was always supposed to be, but Iris could only be herself in her simple dresses, locked away in her room. This was another person entirely.
“Do I look like a lady?” she asked Daisy nervously. “My father doesn’t like me to look any other way, even if it’s only a visit to his office.” With Robert, she was always in a role. “Is my hair right? It hurts.”
“If it hurts, then you know that it’s right,” Daisy replied wryly. “I remember when I first got Olivia dressed for a social occasion, it must have been during her season... boy, did she complain.” Daisy laughed loudly. “But I’m sure you can imagine that. She moaned and screamed at me for hours. If I did not work for her, I might have slapped the hysteria right out of her.”
“She always was a moaner,” Iris nodded with a brief ghost of a smile playing on her lips as she recalled a time where this large house was filled with voices and laughter. Before she was totally alone within its walls... well, almost alone. “And the shameful thing is now she has all the reasons in the world to complain.” It did not matter to Iris that their father undoubtedly helped Olivia to keep her financially afloat, it was the shame that upset her.
“Right,” Daisy tactfully stood in front of her to stop Iris from brooding. When the black cloud clung to her head it was challenging to keep her upright. It did not happen very often anymore, but this would be the worst time for it to come on. Her father would not like it at all, he had little patience for these things which was why he did not see his daughter often. “Let’s get going now. You wouldn’t want to keep your father waiting.”
Iris clung to her arm and allowed her friend to lead her from the room. As they made their way through the grand hallways of the house, towards the spiral staircase, Iris did not want to let go. She knew that Daisy would not be allowed in her father’s office with her because it wasn’t polite for servants to enter private quarters of the house except during the rare times that they were permitted, but she couldn’t help wishing that she could keep her support blanket with her at all times.
“You will be fine,” Daisy whispered quietly to her as she sensed how Iris was feeling. “This might not be what you suspect it to be.”
Iris did not answer Daisy because she was so busy trying to calm her breathing down. She sounded erratic and panicked, and those were two things that her father certainly didn’t approve of. He loved the grace and poise of her mother, her sisters too, to a slightly lesser extent, and Iris felt like it shamed him that she was so different. She had the makings of a lady within her, but not the natural grace.
There were hard, wooden chairs against the white washed wall outside of Robert’s office, so as soon as they arrived there Iris sat down in one of them. She folded her legs at the ankles, and she crossed her arms in her lap, but that was where her ladylike look ended. Iris couldn’t stop her face from screwing up in concern, she had absolutely no control over the tears in the corners of her eyes, and the anxious fidgeting just would not stop.
“I have to leave you now,” Daisy told her regretfully. “But I will come back to you now once your meeting is done.”
“Yes, that should be lovely,” Iris replied formally. “I will see you in a while.”
As her heart beat caused an uncouth level of noise, Iris fixed her gaze on the painting that hung above the door to her father’s room. It showed a bird flying high, soaring above the tiny world below it. The brown of the wings contrasted well with the bright blue sky, and the perspective was incredible. Every time she looked at it, Iris noticed something new to discover in that tiny world. To Iris, the bird represented freedom, the sort of carefree life that she would never be allowed herself. She loved staring at it, her imagination ran wild, but she didn’t get to look at it much because of where it was.
Maybe today would be the day the image represented the loss of her freedom, and she would never be able to look at it again.
“Iris,” her father’s voice boomed through the wall, making her jump. “I already know that you are out there. You might be four minutes early, but you might as well come inside.”
She leapt from her seat and took tiny rapid steps towards the door. It was almost as if her feet were moving in such a strange way because they wanted to scurry off in another direction entirely. Not that she would ever follow through on that urge. She always did what was needed of her, if not what was wanted of her.
Iris pushed the large, heavy door open, and she peeked her head around the door. Her father's office was always dark because he liked to work only by the small lamp on his desk. Against the mahogany wood that seemed to fill most of the room, including the oversized bookcase that filled one of the walls, there was an orangey-red tint to the light.
“Hello, father, shall I come inside?” Her feet danced back and forth while she waited for him to answer.
“That is why I called for you.” He always sounded exasperated by her, so this answer was hardly surprising. “Come in, Iris, sit down.”
She moved rapidly and took a seat. Robert continued to write for a while, almost as if he was doing it on purpose to make her feel uncomfortable. Iris knew that it was expected of her to keep still and silent, but as always her body had other ideas for her.
“I’m afraid it is not good news, Iris.” Finally, his eyes came up to meet hers, and she jolted under the shock of his intense look. “I have been to the doctor today, and I have learned that I am sick.”
“S... sick?” Iris’s brain did somersaults, as did her stomach. She couldn’t quite process what this meant. As she stared at her father she could see some subtle differences, but nothing so dramatic that she would’ve noticed right away. His hair had fallen out in patches, his skin looked yellow and sallow, he had lost a little weight... but she never would’ve guessed that he was seriously ill.
“Yes, fever. I will not live long.” There was absolutely no emotion in his voice as he declared this. It seemed Robert intended to die exactly as he’d lived his whole life – in a business like fashion. Iris would have preferred a moment to digest this, but she wasn’t getting the chance. “I know you won’t like this, but I have to ensure that you are wed to a good man before I pass.” Iris’s heart sunk, she should’ve known it would still come down to this. It always came down to this in the end. “I know you have had your... troubles in your life, but it is time to grow up Iris. You need a husband if I am not longer around to protect you. This is a man’s world and you need to find your place within it.”
Iris bit down on her lip so hard that she feared she might draw blood. One of the tears finally made its way out of her eye and spilt down onto her cheek. She nodded vigorously because she didn't trust herself to speak just yet.
“I have some prospects for you...”
A bubble burst in Iris’s mind. Along with the flow of tears came a flurry of unexpected words. “Prospects already? But people do not know me, I cannot marry someone I do not know.”
Robert’s eyes narrowed. He hated being challenged, especially on a topic that he did not consider anyone else having an opinion on. “Iris, I have been very patient with you over the years. I have allowed you your space while you recovered from your mother, but now it is time to move on. You have to behave in a way that’s expected of you, and this is the next logical step. It is already almost too late; a lot of suitors will consider you too old.”
“I don’t want to get married, can I not just stay here?”
Robert slammed his hands down hard on his desk and he rose to his feet in temper. “Do not be so selfish, Iris. This inheritance is not yours alone. What about Olivia and her children? Do you not think that they deserve more? And Elizabeth, she might be set up well but we need to consider her too.”
“I have given you too much free reign. I have allowed you too many freedoms. It has made you petty.”
“No, father, it isn’t like that...”
“You will do as you are told this time. I will not hear another word on the topic. It has been a challenge enough. People believe that you are aloof which is why you are not seen. Men do not like the idea of aloof, but they do like the name. That is why some of them are willing to meet with you, to see if you are worth it.”
“What if they aren’t worth it?”
“Iris, I am warning you. This is happening.”
All Iris wanted to say was that her and Olivia's family could share the home together. It was big enough, and she could help raise her nephews, but her father did not want to hear it. His mind was made up, and that was the end of it. She might not have known him well, but she could tell by his tone that he was done.
Iris knew deep down that he assumed he was doing the best thing for her, that he just wanted to ensure that she had a comfortable life, but he couldn’t seem to understand that what they wanted for her was very different. Her idea of comfort was to be left well alone. She liked to daydream, to imagine her life, she did not want to live it in the way that was expected of her.
Sensing that his daughter was done fighting him, Robert returned to his seat. “I have picked a suitor that I think will be best for you, and we need to move things along quickly considering my limited time left. I have spoken with Duke Loftus Pembroke, and he is willing to build an arrangement with us.”
“For the dowry,” Iris couldn’t help getting in one less dig.
“For many reasons. Money is not all this man highest concern.” Robert shook his head angrily at her. “He would like to meet with you first, so we will arrange that in the usual way. After which, if you please him then proceedings will continue.”
Iris felt like she was speeding along the road as fast as she could manage. Her entire life had been lifted up from beneath her and now it was totally out of her control. She would be forced to wed some Duke who would expect children, and probably quickly considering her age. That would mean...
She shuddered, no, she did not want to think of what that would mean.
“You may leave now, Iris, as I’m sure you can imagine I have a lot of work to get on with. Many things need sorting, and time is running out.”
Iris opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, half wishing that she could continue to argue her case, and half wishing that she could find a better way to say goodbye. She felt certain that this would be the last time she’d see her father, and while they did not have a great relationship she did not want to leave on bad terms.
She didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her mother, she did not want to make that mistake again.
“Thank you, Father,” she said quietly in the end, as she stood up. It was not much, but it was better than nothing. Not that her father noticed. He shooed her out of the room without even giving her another glance.
Clearly, his death didn't affect him in the way that it did her.
Iris left the office at a slow pace, but as soon as she got out of the room she started running. She did not care how others looked at her, even if some of the servants were out in the hallways, her emotion had got the better of her and she needed to get back to her bedroom. Once she was inside her safe haven, the tight metal coil in her chest would loosen, her lungs would refill with air, the fog from her brain would dissipate.
“Oh, Miss Iris.” Daisy was sitting anxiously on the edge of her bed as she crashed back into her room. She knew that she should have spent the time getting some work done, but she could barely concentrate while she waited. The fate of her friend scared her just as much as it did Iris. “Is it the news that you suspected?”
Iris flew into Daisy’s arms and she sobbed into her chest. “It is worse, so much worse.” She cried for a while, but as soon as she could she blurted out the rest, needing to get it off her chest. “My father has a fever, he will not live much longer, so the need for me to marry now is urgent. He even has someone lined up for me. Duke Loftus Pembroke. I cannot escape this, there is no way.”
Hopelessness circled Iris, she felt like the end of the world had come.
“He might be a nice man,” Daisy shushed and rocked Iris. “You might really like him. You may even fall in love. You might get your happy ever after that you’ve always wanted.”
“With Duke Pembroke?” Iris declared, as if she actually knew this man. “Do you really think that is the name of someone that I should marry?”
Daisy brushed a stray strand of hair off of Iris’s face and she tucked it behind her ear. “I do not know what will happen, Miss Iris, but I do know that you are stronger than you think. You have an inner power that you will discover and harness as you need it. You will find your place, somehow, and you will feel silly for ever worrying.”
“Do you really think so?” Iris wasn’t convinced that there was any strength inside of her, but it felt nice to hear someone comfort her. “I hope you’re right, Daisy, because I am utterly terrified of everything changing.”
“Change is not always bad; you just have to learn how to embrace it.” Daisy was speaking to herself as much as she was Iris, because without her friend around her own life was about to shift too. She had no idea if she would even be needed to work in this large, empty home anymore, which left her jobless and homeless. The references would be good, but a new home would never be the same. “You will be fine.”
Iris could hear someone calling into her dreams, disturbing her rest, but she wasn’t quite ready to wake up just yet. It had taken her long enough to get to sleep, she didn’t want to leave it too soon. Iris knew that she wasn’t awake, that what she was experiencing wasn’t real, but it felt lovely all the same. She was sitting in a castle atop a hill, staring down at a lovely reddish garden while she waited for her love to return...
This time the voice was combined with a shake that rattled the brain in Iris's head. Something drastic had to be going on if someone wanted to disturb her, so with great regret, she pried her eyes open to discover what was going on. The bright light streamed in so hard and fast it caused an ache all over her body.
“What is going on?” she murmured through the sleepy fog. Iris rubbed her head hard as she pushed herself into an upright position. “Daisy? Is everything alright? What is happening?”
All of a sudden her heart sunk. The last time that Daisy had such a strange expression on her face it was because she suspected that Iris’s father was about to deliver some very bad news. Iris desperately prayed that whatever was happening now wouldn’t be so terrible again. She wasn’t sure that she could cope with another round of bad news when she was still reeling from the last lot.
"Daisy, tell me," she warned while sitting up straighter. "I need to know what is going on now."
“Miss Iris, do not worry.” Daisy waved her arms frantically, she didn’t mean to cause such alarm in Iris. She probably should’ve guessed that she would be still very much on edge after what happened the previous day. “It is not something to worry about. Your sister is here to see you. She is waiting downstairs right now.”
“Which sister?” Iris asked tentatively.
Without even bothering to get dressed, Iris tore from the room at top speed, knocking her bed covers to the floor as she raced away. She loved Olivia very much, she always had done, but she never seemed to understand why Iris fell into depression. Having faced terrible circumstances her whole life and getting through them with her head held high, she felt like her sister should be much stronger than she was.
It was an expectation that Iris had never quite managed to get her head around.
Elizabeth didn’t hold the same judgments about Iris. She simply loved Iris for who she was. The understanding wasn’t fully there, but the love and support always would be. Maybe it was because they were closer in age so they had grown up with a tighter bond, or maybe she just had a kinder, more open heart. Whatever it was, Iris adored having her come to visit and this was a perfect time for it. If she had ever needed her sister’s advice, it was now.
She finally spotted Elizabeth standing at the bottom of the stairs in a pale blue satin dress that fell past her ankles to scrape lightly along the ground. Her pale brown hair was twisted up into a very elegant looking chignon with jewels decorating it, and she had white gloves pulled up to her elbows. Iris had never seen her sister look so elegant before. She was used to seeing her dressed up like a lady, but now she had the poise too. And the tight expression Iris often saw on the society ladies... that certainly didn’t go amiss.
“Elizabeth!” Iris gasped loudly while falling into Elizabeth’s open arms. “I have missed you so much. How are you?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth’s voice was as taut as her mouth, which suggested her mood did not match her words. “I am well, and how are you, sister?”
Iris pulled back and stared into her sister’s eyes. The deep blue was like an ocean of morose sadness that she truly did not want to dive into herself. If this was what life as a married woman would be like, then it certainly wasn’t what she wanted for herself. Elizabeth used to be joyful and carefree, it was such a shame to see that stripped from her.
“Shall we go to my bedroom?” Iris urged quietly. “We can talk more freely there?”
“Actually, I think it might be best for you to get dressed and we should have a walk in the gardens instead.” Elizabeth gave her sister a pointed look. “Then we can have true freedom when we speak.”
Iris nodded slowly. Elizabeth wouldn't have suggested that walk outside knowing how little Iris liked it, if she had known that anyone else would be out there. It was clear that whatever she needed to discuss was so private that she couldn't risk their father hearing at all. It wasn't likely that he would be eavesdropping, but in the outdoors, there was absolutely no risk of accidentally listening either.
“Of course, wait here and I shall get dressed now.”
As Iris bounded back up the stairs to her room, and she pulled on the first slip dress she could find, her mind raced over the endless possibilities. Despite the fact that Elizabeth was not happy in her marriage, there wasn’t anything she could do to change that now, so it had to be something different which she wished to discuss. Could she be having a baby? Did she want to tell Iris more about how that had happened, filling her with an even deeper horror of the prospect? Or could it be something about another person entirely? Elizabeth wasn’t much for society gossip, despite the fact that most other ladies seemed to relish in it, so if she had something scandalous to tell Iris it would be very important.
Oh for goodness sake, she couldn’t stand it any longer! There was no point in allowing her imagination to get the better of her, she had to just find out the truth. It probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as anything she could concoct in her own mind anyway. Without bothering to tie up her hair or even check her appearance, Iris left her bedroom and found her sister once more.
Elizabeth did not say another word to Iris until they were outside and far enough away from the house that not a single soul could hear them. Even so, she glanced around to check that there were no spies, before she opened her mouth to finally put Iris out of her misery.
“Iris, I have heard the news.”
Oh. Iris’s heart sunk. She knew that her betrothal was something that she needed to discuss eventually, but Elizabeth knowing already made it that much more real. What if that meant everyone knew? There certainly wouldn’t be any escape then.
Not that there was much chance of it anyway.
“Father is sick? He is dying?”
Ah, that made more sense!
"Yes." Iris hung her head towards the ground, showing the appropriate amount of sadness. Iris fell apart when her mother passed away, so the fact that she did not feel the same way now made her feel very guilty. It made sense, her mother was her world whereas her father was a virtual stranger, but still, she felt bad. "He said this to me only yesterday. It is a terrible shame."
“Life will be... different without him here.” Elizabeth seemed to be struggling with what to say as well. The girls were not at all heartless, this was just a man that had always existed in the peripherals of their lives. It was like discussing the death of a very distant cousin. “Has he made a plan for you yet?”
“Yes,” Iris whispered. “He wants me to get married.”
Elizabeth pulled Iris closer to her for a hug. She embraced her close, pressing her head into her chest. For a brief moment, this reminded Iris of her mother’s comforting cuddles. They never failed to make her feel much better. Maybe Elizabeth’s hug would work too, if it wasn’t for such the dire situation.
“Has he given you the names of any suitors?”
“Duke Loftus Pembroke.”
Elizabeth pulled back to stare at her sister with wide, shocked eyes. “Are you serious?”
Iris’s heart hammered, her brain span. She watched Elizabeth’s face twist up in disgust which made her feel even worse about the arrangement – something she hadn’t thought possible until now.
“I am serious, why what is wrong?”
Elizabeth paced, she walked all the way over to the fountain in the Warwick garden where she took a seat on the outer stone rim. Concern was plastered over her expression the entire time while she pondered this news. In fact, Iris noted that she looked more horrified than the day she learned that she would be getting married herself.
Iris could recall that day well. She remembered her sister stomping around the room in fury at the prospect. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get married, she did want a husband and family to call her own, it was simply that she wanted to pick her own husband. She didn’t want the older gentleman that her father had deemed worthy of her hand and dowry. Iris felt sorry for Elizabeth back then, but it was a distant sympathy. It felt like the sort of situation was a million miles away from her own life. She couldn’t imagine the time when it would come for her too.
That time was now.
“Iris, I have heard of Duke Loftus Pembroke,” Elizabeth finally started in a hushed tone. “He is not a nice man.”
“What do you mean?” Iris gulped, trying to keep the sickness in. “Is he grumpy? Cold-hearted?”
Elizabeth grasped her sister’s hands and she smiled as reassuringly as she could manage considering the situation. She knew herself what it was to be married to someone that wasn’t any good, she had that herself, but this was different. Iris was soft, too delicate for the world, and Loftus was a brute. There was no way this pairing was a good one, if only their father paid more attention he would know this for himself.
“He has a horrible reputation as an unpleasant man who isn't kind to anyone – least of all the women in his life. His angry temper has gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. I do not want to think of you stuck in his home, sad and heartbroken every day."
“Oh my God.” Iris clutched her chest, her whole body pulsating with terror. The idea had been awful before, now she could feel it tearing her soul apart “Oh my goodness, Elizabeth, are you serious? I do not know what to say. What should I do? Can I escape this?”
Elizabeth’s face fell. A betrothal arrangement was incredibly hard to break. Even preliminary arrangements between gentlemen were considered solid, set in stone almost. Also, their father was in a rush. He was dying, he wanted this wrapped up before he passed away. There was no chance he would listen to Elizabeth’s plea on her sister’s behalf. He was challenging enough to speak to under ordinary circumstances.
"I will try for you," Elizabeth promised hollowly. She didn't want to leave Iris alone under a cloud of despair. She wouldn't be able to go back home knowing that Iris was falling into an abyss. Even if she couldn't do anything about it, she had to leave Iris with a tiny spark of hope. "I will speak to Father today, see if there is anyone more suitable."
“I would prefer for it to be no one,” Iris replied glumly, but of course, she already knew that it wasn’t possible. She would have to marry someone if that was what her father wished of her. “But it will be better not to be him. Anyone but him.”
Elizabeth stood up to walk away, and Iris nodded in acknowledgement. She needed to stay out in the garden for a little while longer, to work out what she was going to do next, and Elizabeth understood that. Some alone time would do Iris good. She hoped the sunshine would help to clear her mind a little bit, to help her to come to terms with what inevitably had to be done.
As Iris watched her sister walk away, her heart darted all over her body in a panic. Elizabeth had made it obvious that there was no escaping marriage entirely, and although she’d promised to help, Iris wasn’t convinced that there was any chance of her actually talking their father around. His hard reputation was there for a reason.
Maybe she should run away.
Iris pictured herself jumping up from the fountain right at that moment and simply taking off with no plan whatsoever. Just going wherever the wind took her. She imagined herself running off into the sunset and never looking back, forgetting this life forever more.
It was a romantic notion, but not a practical one, and that was the only thing that kept Iris fixed where she was. After all, the running off would be one thing but what would happen to her afterwards? With no money, she would need to work, and with no skills or experience, there wasn’t a lot she could do. With no connections, she would probably be forced to work as one of those street girls that Daisy had told her all about one terrifying night.
Daisy had scared her half to death by telling her that there were poor girls out there in the big cities, who were forced to give over their bodies for cash, that men would treat them badly and shame them in terrible ways. Apparently, they needed money so badly that every single day was a terrible chore for them, and that once they'd been shamed into that life, there was no getting out of it. Some might go on to become courtesans who would receive the privilege of the company of wealthier men... but still it was not a lifestyle that appealed to the ever frightened Iris.
At the time, Iris had been so scared by the tales that she hadn’t even bothered to ask how Daisy knew all of that. Maybe it was a friend of her who had been forced into that life, or a family member. Or maybe it was just one of those warning stories that the working classes shared with each other, to allow them to feel better about their own less than comfortable existences.
No, Iris could not run away, she did not want that ever to be her. The idea of men’s eyes upon her as a marriage prospect was bad enough. This was a step too far.
As the sun crept higher in the sky, and the birds’ tweets got increasingly louder with each passing second, Iris knew that her mood should at least try to match the brightness of the day, but she could not find it within her. It was as if her heart and organs had been swallowed whole by a deep, black gloom, and there was nothing that she could do to shake that off of her. It was a waste for her to be out in it when she couldn’t enjoy its beauty. If it wasn’t going to make her smile, then she should leave it for someone else. Someone who still knew what hope felt like.
With a deep sigh, Iris stood back up and she wandered aimlessly towards her home... or what was her home for now, maybe it wouldn’t be for too much longer. As she moved, she tried her best to find some determination within her. There had to be a way out of this, she just needed to figure out what it was...
If only this was a world in which she could actually have a say.