The Boutique on Bond Street
The boutique belonging to one Madame Duvall stood at the end of Bond Street (the fashionable part of town), in between a draper's shop and a milliners. It was beautifully kept - the windows always sparkling, the white paintwork fresh and bright, and the scent of newly acquired lavender drifted in a cloud around it, tempting those passing to come inside.
And the wares sold within this fair establishment? White fabrics, lace, gloves and sashes. Material was both bought and made into dresses by the proprietor expressly for the brides who visited - because this was indeed a bridal boutique and the customers were women who were flying on the very wings of happiness. They were fulfilled; they were complete in every way. In short, they were getting married.
Madame Duvall delighted in every one of her Žgirls,' as she secretly called them. Each would tentatively step over the threshold, peering at the bolts of white cloth and lace on display, no longer forbidden fruit, but items needed for their trousseaux. Madame would greet them, and begin the task of finding them what they wanted.
"Such a fine figure, if I may say so. A crisp white satin should suit you, my dear. Come this way, and I will show you . . ."
Kerchiefs, gloves and the like were easily decided upon; a gown was a little harder. Ladies are rarely decisive about clothing at the best of times; a wedding dress is doubly difficult. Madame, however, had a knack for choosing just the right one. She would chat to the lady and sometimes her companion (usually a mother), and then gaze at the bride a while. A pencil and paper would appear with a sudden flourish, a quick sketch formed, and a dress was born. The lady would exclaim, "But Madame, that is just what I was hoping for!" and Madame would smile gratefully, her magic performed. As the weeks passed - the items dispatched, the pattern drawn, and the gown sewn - Madame became fond of her girls. Rank or class held little sway with her - her boutique was prestigious enough to cater to the daughter of the wealthiest landowner; at the same time, she often lowered her bill to accommodate the lowliest clergyman's daughter. It was all a matter of business. And they all paid one way or another.
Madame threw opened the boutique doors on a fine August morning. Today promised to be very profitable. She had no fewer than six girls arriving today, each at different stages in their wedding plans. Thank goodness for Marie, who was at that moment already reading over the day's schedule.
"It is nine o'clock, Marie, and our first client is due at nine fifteen, is not that right?"
"Yes, Madame," answered Marie dutifully, shutting the ledger, and moving to tidy the shop here and there. Madame disappeared in the storeroom yonder; there was little to do so early in the day, until the first bride arrived.
The shop bell jangled daintily at precisely quarter past nine, and Madame breezed elegantly through the shop to greet her clients.
"Mrs and Miss Morland, I presume? Delighted to meet you! Mrs Morland, we have been communicating by letter, have we not? And Miss Catherine," Madame tucked a finger under Catherine Morland's chin. "You are quite a beauty, my dear. We shall enjoy dressing you." Catherine blushed, then like every bride before her, gazed greedily at the wares of the boutique.
"Mama," she whispered. "I like that one there!" Madame followed her gesturing finger.
"You have taste, Miss Morland. That lace is a popular choice for my more . . . aristocratic clientele." Mrs Morland looked highly gratified, and Catherine blushed.
With a flourish, Madame ordered that the measure be brought, so that Miss Morland's size could be ascertained. The party moved to a small alcove; Miss Morland was placed on a stool, her outdoor garments removed, and Madame began to measure her.
"You are a lucky girl, Miss Morland. A June wedding, I understand? I hope the weather permits - I know of at least one bride whose wedding was rained off in June. And what manner of man are you marrying?"
"Well . . ." began Catherine, and Madame grinned inwardly as she knelt to measure the gown length. She anticipated an outpour of superlatives to describe the groom; she was not disappointed.
"His name is Henry Tilney, and he is the very best man in the world. The handsomest, the cleverest, most agreeable . . ."
"The younger son of General Tilney of Northanger Abbey?" asked Madame, pausing in her work. Catherine sighed dramatically.
"I care nothing for that. We shall be very happy at Woodston." Catherine's chin stuck out in defiance, and Madame was touched by the obvious pride she took in her alliance. Here was a spirited girl, upon her honour!
The measurements taken, Madame drew a sketch for Catherine of a simple white gown, trimmed with plenty of blue ribbon and a matching sash - clean, youthful, and fresh as a daisy: exactly her impression of Catherine Morland.
"Oh, how simply wonderful Madame Duvall. That is just what I had pictured! I shall feel like Emily in Udolpho - a true heroine!"
"Who, dear?" Madame's face creased into a frown. Whoever she was, this Emily sounded rather suspicious.
"The Mysteries of Udolpho, have you not read it?"
The shop bell prevented Madame from replying, so she asked Marie to tend to the Morlands for a moment whilst she greeted the new customer.
"Good morning, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth Bennet - you are rather earlier than I expected," Madame said, nonetheless pleased to see these lovely women again. The Bennet sisters were eagerly planning a joint wedding in December. It was rather too soon for Madame's liking, but the ladies were so delightful that it was a pleasure to work with them - so long as their mother did not accompany them.
"My apologies," replied Elizabeth, loosening the ribbon on her bonnet, and depositing herself on a sopha. "We are here only to check on the progress of our trousseaux."
"Our mother is concerned," added Jane, and she lowered herself elegantly into the space next to her sister. "She thinks we ought to purchase more handkerchiefs."
"Hmm," murmured Madame. "At my last count, you both had six dozen. Tell her that this is considered more than enough in my experience. Is she at home today?" added Madame, looking hopeful.
"She is visiting our Aunt Gardiner in Gracechurch Street," Jane explained. "Her rheumatism is affected by the cold today, so we cannot stay long."
"Please tell her about the Žkerchiefs," pleaded Elizabeth to Madame, eyes sparkling. "I should dearly love to see her face should you oppose her on such a topic."
Madame gulped. "I am working to a schedule girls, as always. But I shall write and tell her - I believe I can persuade her. Now, about your gowns . . ."
The gowns - incomplete, but already breathtaking - were brought from the workroom, and Elizabeth and Jane tried them on. When they appeared in the main shop, Catherine and her mother were just leaving, escorted by Marie.
"What lovely dresses!" Catherine cried, staring at the two older girls after Madame had introduced them. "Excuse me, but you both look simply lovely!"
"You are very kind," replied Jane, resplendent in a simple white silk. Elizabeth was busy swirling her skirt, which was half beaded with tiny pearls.
"I like it Madame, but the train is rather long and encumbering; I can scarcely move."
"You don't need to run a race child, just walk down the aisle and dance a few steps," was Madame's response. Shrugging in acceptance of this, Lizzy regarded Catherine, who had turned to leave.
"You must be getting married too. My congratulations." Catherine smiled gratefully.
"You are very kind, thank you. I hope all goes well." spoke Jane softly.
For a second, the three brides regarded each other, each radiating happy thoughts and good feelings towards the other. Then Catherine and her mother walked out onto the street, chatting quietly about something to do with an elopement. Madame, her time with the Morlands now spent, turned her attention back to the Bennet sisters, who each seemed well pleased with their gowns. They changed back quickly into their own clothes, and were giving their last instructions when another girl breezed in, pink in the face.
"I am sorry, Madame Duvall, I am rather late. It was my fianc» - we were reading together, and I quite neglected the time."
"Not at all, Miss Marianne," returned Madame, who in truth had not had chance to observe the time. "You are here just at the right moment, for the Miss Bennets were leaving. Miss Marianne Dashwood, this is Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Hertfordshire."
Marianne bobbed to Elizabeth and Jane, who did the same. "Are you sisters?" Marianne asked, still slightly breathless.
"Yes, we have just come to see our gowns. We are getting married in December," replied Jane politely.
"A double wedding, how romantic!" gasped Marianne. "My sister Elinor has already married, and it was a quiet wedding. How I would have loved to marry with her! Have you any other sisters?"
"Yes, three," said Jane again. "Our youngest, Lydia, married lately also."
Elizabeth, Madame observed, suddenly turned little red.
"Well you must be looking forward to the wedding, to be sure," continued Marianne. "I believe I shall be very happy with Colonel Brandon - my fianc», that is."
"He served in the East Indies, did he not child?" interrupted Madame, and Marianne nodded.
"Oh, yes, he is the very best of men." Here she paused, and the smile on her face dimmed a little. "Better than any man I've ever known."
"Then you are fortunately met, Miss Dashwood, for I understand that good men are few and far between. Are they not Jane?" Elizabeth's sister made no reply except a "Really, Lizzy!" and Elizabeth grinned slyly back.
"Well, good luck, Miss Dashwood. Goodbye, Madame. Any letters send to Longbourn, as usual." Marie bowed the Bennets from the shop, and turned her attention to Marianne.
"Now, Miss Dashwood, I have your trousseau here ready for you, as promised." Madame lifted out each item to show the new owner. Kerchiefs, gloves, nightgowns and underclothes were lain out like exhibits, but last to come was the dress - a perfect romantic outfit for Marianne, who exclaimed over the tiny rosebuds and leaves sewn on the bodice.
"I shall be like Guinevere herself in this frock! Could you have it delivered to Barton Cottage as soon as possible, please Madame?"
An arrangement was made, and Marianne, with many loud goodbyes, headed for the door. As she opened it, another girl appeared.
"Excuse me," was Marianne's only speech to her, and she was gone. The new customer approached cautiously, as if she had no right to come into such a magnificent shop. Madame - who was leaning against the counter, resting her feet - stood straight.
"I am Miss Price, Madame, do you remember? I came last month for a fitting, and you. . ."
" . . . I asked you to come back today for a second," finished Madame. "Of course, Miss Price, come in."
"I prefer Fanny, if you please," said the girl shyly.
"Of course," answered Madame, bringing out the plain white gown, made of fine wool with only a little ribbon on the hem. This Fanny was rather a puzzle - unlike her predecessors, she seemed not at all interested in adorning herself for the marriage ceremony.
"Edmund will love it," Fanny said quietly, when she was standing on the stool, the dress on.
"Edmund is your fianc»?" Madame's voice floated up from under the skirt, as she repinned the material.
"Yes," replied Fanny, and Madame sensed the change in the girl's tone. At once she began to describe this Mr. Bertram, and Madame smiled; Miss Fanny obviously thought the world of him.
". . . and Edmund asked if we should have a quiet service, and I agreed; you see the ceremony ought to be about the joining of hands and hearts, about two souls fused together for eternity. All this," Fanny flicked at her gown, "means very little, don't you agree, Madame?"
Madame made a sound in affirmation, but in truth, she did not agree, for were not weddings all about pomp and occasion? It was, after all, what kept her in business. She decided that Fanny Price was something of a mystery bride, the only enthusiasm showed during her visit being when discussing her beloved Edmund. All this waxing lyrical about husbands - how much these girls had to learn!
Miss Price left after about a half-hour later, walking demurely out of the boutique after thanking Madame and Marie politely. The women now breathed audible sighs of relief - for they were exhausted. The girls this morning, Madame claimed vociferously, had been incredibly hard work. More, inevitably, was to come.
Madame and her assistant had barely time for a glass of water each and an arrowroot biscuit for a break, when their fifth customer breezed into their shop like a whirlwind - albeit an elegant one.
"Madame Duvall? I am Miss Emma Woodhouse. I understand Mrs. Weston has been in touch with you - you came highly recommended."
"Of course, my dear Miss Woodhouse. Aah, I remember Miss Taylor - I mean Mrs Weston! What a lovely bride I produced there . . . But to the present! And who is this lady you have brought?"
"My dear friend, Mrs Harriet Martin," answered Emma, pushing a plump, affable young woman forward. "Her advice will be invaluable to me today, for she is my best and dearest friend." She linked her arm through Mrs Martin's, and the latter beamed with pleasure.
"Martin?" repeated Madame. "I do not know that name. Did you come to me my dear to be fitted?"
"N . . . no," stammered Mrs. Martin. "My trousseau was made . . . at home."
Madame sniffed at this idea, but said nothing. Turning to Emma, she began asking questions similar to the ones she had fired at Catherine earlier that day. What did the young lady envision? What was her ideal gown? More to the point - how much was she prepared to spend? Emma gave a figure for the latter question, and Madame immediately set to work on a sketch. Mrs Martin bent over, and exclaimed:
"Oh, Miss Woodhouse it is too divine! What will Mr Knightley think indeed, when he sees it?" She paused. "What material do you suggest, Madame Duvall - something simple?"
"No, Mrs Martin, that would be a most pitiful business! Miss Woodhouse is a lady, and her dress must be fit for one, upon my word! I'll have no more talk of plain and simple. We shall have lace - Flanders - and lots of white satin."
Emma looked disgruntled - having said hardly a word for a good few minutes.
"Madame, Mr. Knightley and I have no taste for finery or parade; a little veil, and some good white linen will suffice. I cannot abide those brides who truss themselves up as if they were presents. No, I shall insist on simplicity. Thank you, dear friend," she added generously to Harriet, who looked extremely pleased with herself. "You know how invaluable your counsel is to me."
Madame was thoroughly put out. Miss Woodhouse was by far the wealthiest of them all today - and not to want finery for her wedding! First that Miss Price, and now the rich Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield. It was almost sacrilegious. She really did not know where these girls were at today!
A design, however, was decided upon - a finely trimmed gown with tiny sleeves and a yellow lining of persian; Madame arranged to have Emma back in a month or so for a fitting. Their heads were bent over Madame's ledger on the counter, when the bell tinkled once more, and another customer entered the boutique. Emma looked up immediately to see if it was an acquaintance, but all she saw was an older, rather plain woman, with dark hair and a sallow complexion. Madame on the other hand, excused herself, and greeted the newcomer.
"Miss Elliot, welcome back, my dear. How very timely, for Miss Woodhouse was just leaving. Have you met Miss Elliot? No? Then may I present Miss Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield, and Mrs . . . Martin was it?"
Emma looked indifferent, but Harriet was eager to introduce herself.
"Are you here for your trousseau, Miss Elliot?" Harriet asked, glancing at Emma, who seemed to have lost interest, and was casually fingering some pearl buttons on the counter.
"I would hardly call it a trousseau, Mrs. Martin. A gown, some new personal effects, that is all."
"Indeed," sniffed Madame Duvall, who had gone to the back room for Miss Elliot's order.
"When are you to be married?" pressed Harriet. Anne blushed at the questioning.
"Soon. Some say that long engagements are rather tiresome, and I concur."
"Oh, I agree," Harriet returned warmly. "I believe I was engaged to Mr Martin only a few months. You must be looking forward to having your own household."
"Indeed," replied Miss Elliot, smiling for the first time since entering the shop. "My fianc» was in the Navy you see, and wants to take a house for us in the country."
"The Navy - my, how gallant! I think there is nothing so brave as our Navy. You must have been loath to see him go into battle."
"Yes," Anne lowered her eyes, and sighed. "But he has returned, and we are to be married. The sooner the better," she added quickly.
"How romantic!" sighed Harriet, and Emma added a "Yes, dear," from near the door. Evidently, she was eager to leave. Madame was now returning, carrying an arm full of items, and said in a loud voice,
"How is Sir Walter, Miss Elliot? Is he still in Bath?" Anne blushed again, but Emma's hand stopped on its way to the doorknob.
"Sir Walter? Sir Walter Elliot, lately of Kellynch Hall,?"
"Yes," answered Anne softly, but her eyes shone with sudden alarm at this young woman before her. Before she could add anything else, Emma had taken Harriet's hand and dragged her from the shop, no doubt to begin a lengthy (and probably part fanciful) history of the fall of Sir Walter from his country seat.
Madame had not noticed Emma's abrupt departure; she had been sorting through Anne's trousseau on the counter, and checking the garments against a list.
"One gown, already delivered; two dozen handkerchiefs, initialled; stockings . . . yes, Miss Elliot, it is all here." She rewrapped the remaining articles and pushed it forwards. "That completes the order. I do not expect to see you again, unless of course there are any problems."
"I am sure there will be none." Anne hesitated, as Marie lifted the parcel and took it outside to be loaded onto the carriage. "Madame, thank you. You have been so wonderfully helpful. I am sure this wedding would not be half so anticipated were it not for you."
"Oh, my child, how kind!" Anne extended her hand, and the women shook hands. Madame cleared her throat, and asked a question that had been puzzling her all day:
"Miss Elliot, you are a bride, so tell me - does this all really matter? The lace, the pearls, the pomp and ceremony; does it matter to you?"
Anne pondered the question, then answered, and her voice rang out around the room, more clear and determined than ever before:
"Yes, it matters to a point. A woman ought to want to dress elegantly and beautifully on her wedding day. All eyes will be on her, and she must not put a foot wrong." She shuddered. "And yet - no, Madame, ultimately, if one marries for love, the dresses and so on do not matter. I have been lucky; I have waited for a long time - it seems like forever! - and now Captain Wentworth is to be my husband. The love we have is not founded on lace or satin or handkerchiefs. It is founded on respect, and mutual feeling - and these are not worn for show, and then packed away in chests for posterity; they are carried in here." Anne gestured to her heart, and then suddenly looked shy. "Well, that is my opinion, at least."
Madame nodded, satisfied. Sensing that she had asked too much of the girl, she ushered her out, and closed the door soundly. Turning to look into her shop, as if she were a bride herself - perhaps entering the boutique for a gown - she peered round at all the wares and delights a bride felt she ought to have. Then, shaking her head and smiling ruefully, she turned the key in the door, and called to Marie to bring her the orders from today.
She had a feeling that today had been very lucrative indeed.
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