“Oh Charlotte, do remember to point your toes!”
“I’m trying, Mistress Calburn.”
“A young lady does not need to try, she simply does. And keep your shoulders back.”
Waltzing, it seemed, was not as easy and effortless as débutantes made it look. Charlotte loathed the other young women who danced the night away, who possessed elegance and poise in swathes. Although she was fluent in three languages, proficient at playing the flute and piano, and had passable artistic skills, she seemed to lack the certain air of grace and beauty that was noticed and admired by all. Which in her opinion, was a blessing. She could blend into the background, wishing to go home and read, or draw, or something that involved a brain rather than a pretty face and a flouncy gown.
An impatient tapping wrenched her mind back to the parlour.
“I think that will be all for today, Charlotte.” Her dance tutor sighed, a pitiful expression painted on her usually stern face. “And I was so hopeful this morning.”
Charlotte hurried back to her own room, closing the door behind her. Dance practice was exhausting, and despite young ladies being expected to feel no pain, her stockinged feet rubbed in her shoes and her legs muscles twinged. It was as Charlotte dropped onto her bed, ignoring the way it crumpled her silk skirts, that she noticed a letter on her writing desk. It sat atop of a messy pile of half-finished sketches that she didn't know where to put or how to complete. Charlotte grabbed a letter opener and sliced open the envelope. A dried violet floated to the floor, accompanied by a delicate aroma. A little smile bloomed on Charlotte’s face, the significance of the flower clear and bright. She unfolded the note, which held a single sentence:
Meet me tonight – S
Excitement filled her heart, the buzzing anticipation that followed each of these notes. And yet anxiety crept its way into her head like a stubborn weed. What if someone found out about the notes? Or worse, what if they were caught meeting? Charlotte’s family was a part of society, and revered propriety and dignity. Her parents would be furious with her actions, not to mention the embarrassment they would all suffer. She would be cast out, scorned by the people who expected so much of her.
Despite her doubts, Charlotte knew she couldn’t resist. These meetings made her happy, a feeling she so rarely experienced in this merciless world of expectations and resulting disappointment. Her life of ballgowns and afternoon tea was repetitive. Dull. A waste of time. The idea of marriage only for position and wealth was a prospect she longed to escape, no matter how futile the dream. For a short while at least, she could.
Later that night, when her parents had long retired for bed, Charlotte slipped out of her rooms and crept towards the servant’s door, carefully avoiding the creaking stairs and housekeeper on patrol. She couldn't help but think of all the books she'd read of women sneaking out of their homes, unnoticed by the entire household. How cliche. Yet, she understood their motivation, and couldn't help but feel a thrill of defiance. Though if she was caught, it would be obvious where she was headed in her overcoat and hastily fastened boots. She prayed she would be lucky again. She breathed a sigh of relief as she navigated the final corridor and sneaked out of the door. This lead into a narrow alleyway along the side of the family’s London townhouse, deserted at this hour. She followed the alley down to the Thames, the river like a liquid mirror under the waxing moon. Along the riverside, a wrought-iron gate was buried in the high stone walls and partially hidden by hanging ivy. The hinges creaked as Charlotte pushed the gate open, the bottom catching on the narrow dirt path.
Behind the gate lay a tiny walled garden, teeming with overgrown shrubbery and wild flowers. It was a secret paradise hidden in the depths of the city. The perfect meeting place. As far as she was aware, they were the only two people who knew of the garden. It was both frightening and comforting to know no-one else knew of these midnight encounters.
In the centre of the garden, framed by twisting roses, was a little bench, which Charlotte settled on. A few minutes later, another figure crept into the garden, and sat down next to her. Sofia's dark hair blended into the shadows of the garden, and her soft eyes gazed into Charlotte's.
“I’ve missed you, Sofia,” Charlotte said. “It’s hard to keep sneaking out.”
"I know, but I couldn't wait any longer without seeing you. It's hard enough as it is." Sofia replied, her voice gentle and melodic.
“I wish we didn’t have to hide. I wish you didn’t have to be my secret.”
“Maybe someday we won’t have to hide,” whispered Sofia. “Maybe someday people will realise that girls can love girls, just as much as girls can love boys.”
The two girls stayed for a long time in the hidden garden, kissing under the luminous moon and wishing for a future.