The next day, Danielle took the hog to find truffles in the woods. She decided to take a swim in the lake, and returned home late as a result. When she did arrive, she found Margeurite and Jacqueline playing dice in the living room.
"Somebody's in trouble," Marguerite sang softly.
Danielle glanced quizzically at Jacqueline, but the Baroness chose that moment to burst into the room. She clasped onto Danielle's ear and thrust her into the nearest chair. "You stupid, stupid girl! How dare you do this to me! To Marquerite! It's deceitfulness, Danielle, and I will not tolerate it!"
"What did I do?" She glanced to the girls and back at the Baroness.
"Think, Danielle. Think really hard," Marguerite smirked.
Her gaze shifted from Marguerite to Jacqueline, who used her hands to mime a horse's galloping hooves. Marguerite glared at Jacqueline, who rolled the dice.
"Prince Henry stole our horse?" Danielle slowly responded.
"Yes! And that would explain why he returned it this afternoon!" The Baroness strutted proudly over to her favorite daughter, who basked in her mother's glory. "How dare you let him surprise us like that! Thankfully, Marguerite turned in a stunning performance."
"Yes, I shouldn't be surprised if he comes calling again." Marguerite picked up the dice and rolled.
The Baroness turned her scowl back on Danielle. "He said you exchanged words, that you were forceful. Come, I must know exactly what was said. The simplest phrase can have a thousand meanings."
She couldn't possibly tell her the entire conversation. That was a secret between the prince and herself. "I... I called him a thief." The Baroness's scowl deepened into one of shock. "I did not recognize him!"
Her scowl dissipated and a look of mocking pity replaced it. "Oh, you poor country girl." She paused, then bent down as though speaking to a small child. "Well, we must work extra hard to ensure the manor is spotless. We can't have a royal bottom sitting on a dirty chaise, now, can we?"
Danielle shook her head, grateful to have gotten out of the mess so easily. The Baroness turned to speak to her girls, and Danielle slipped away to the kitchen with the truffles.
Life continued as normal in the de Ghent household. Contrary to Marguerite's statement, the prince did not come calling again. However, his marriage to the Princess of Spain was postponed, and a royal ball was announced. Rumors regarding the prince's romantic intentions were many; the Baroness and Marguerite were thoroughly convinced that he did not intend to marry a Spanish princess at all, and this was their chance to seal the deal for themselves. Naturally, when an official messenger bearing an invitation to the ball presented himself at their door, they were overjoyed.
Danielle and Gustave enjoyed mimicing the shallow women, and Jacqueline lamented having to go to the ball. It was a masque, and all the dresses they could find were dull in comparison to those Marguerite was convinced others would be wearing. The best they managed to find were peacock and horse assembles, complete with an elaborate feathered mask for the peacock and a delicate wire headpiece for the horse. The Baroness, declaring that it was her job to be the mother of the bride and that her days as a bride were over, purchased a "simple" evening ballgown. Marguerite sighed that she would settle for the peacock ensemble, and the horse costume was delegated to Jacqueline.
"I do wish I could be the peacock. Next thing you know they'll have me pulling the carriage and scrubbing the floors with you!" she exclaimed to Danielle and Gustave the week before the ball. "Not that it would be too dreadful," she quickly added, "but... well, I am a member of this family too. As despicable as they are, we are flesh and blood."
"If it were my family, I'd rather be a real horse than their brother."
"Gustave!" Danielle tried desperately to hold back a laugh.
He tugged on Danielle's hair. "Admit it, you thought the same thing."
"Still. I'm related to them by marriage, too, so it is my lot as well. Therefore, I forbid you to go about speaking like that without permission."
Gustave shrugged. "I'm not sure which of you is worse off. A relative by blood they like on some occasions and pretend to on others, while a relative by matrimony they pretend they're being generous to while you polish their banisters."
The three of them sat for a moment, not sure how to respond, before Jacqueline changed back to their original conversation. "I wish you could come, Danielle. It would be much easier to bear if you were there to laugh at them with me."
Danielle shrugged. "I suppose I should like to go. After all, if the prince can be tolerable, perhaps a courtier or two might be as well. Although I doubt it, and I would never imagine going if you weren't."
Jacqueline sighed. "It is not as if it matters. Mother would never allow it."
Gustave smiled slyly. "You should go anyway, Elly. It is a masquerade - the Baroness wouldn't even have to know."
Danielle laughed, but Jacqueline perked up. "You could, you know. It would not be at all too difficult."
"Yes, except that I should need a gown and shoes, and of course a masque, and I have not the money, the time, or the excuse to go out shopping for any of that. Besides, everything will have already been purchased by the invited guests - and there's another problem. How am I to enter a royal ball without an invitation?"
Jacqueline looked defeated, but she continued, "You could wear something of mine. I know I'm a bit... larger, but with all your servant work your body is not as frail as Marguerite's. Still... I suppose yours is stronger while mine is just softer. Only my shoes would fit you truly well." She pouted at the failed plan.
Gustave's face held the gleam he often carried when plotting something illegal. "You shall have a dress and shoes and masque - and you shall go to the ball! In fact, I declare you'll be the belle of the ball!"
Danielle rolled her eyes at his enthusiasm. "And how will we arrange all this? Should we consult the fairies from a story-book, have them create an ensemble from mere air? I repeat: I have neither money, nor time, nor an excuse to be out dress shopping. Pighead."
Gustave pushed Danielle teasingly. "Just plan to go. You'll see." He pushed himself up and bounded down the narrow stairway.
Danielle shrugged and looked at Jacqueline. She smiled hopefully and shrugged back.
The day of the ball, the manor was in uproar. Maurice's wife, his sister, and Danielle were hard-pressed to assist the three women in dressing and preparing. As soon as the carriage had pulled away, Gustave appeared by Danielle's side.
"Hurry. Let's get you ready."
"Have you got a dress?" She peeked behind his back, but his hands were empty.
"What do you think?"
He led her into the house, and Maurice's wife and sister followed them into Jacqueline's bedchamber. He pulled open Jacqueline's wardrobe, despite severe protests from the women.
"Oh, don't worry. It took some work, but I convinced her to let me use it. She is a proper lady and all, but she'd do just about anything for Elly."
Pushing aside the gowns in the front, Gustave reached to the back and pulled out a delicate white gown, handing it to Maurice's wife. Compared to the dresses Marguerite and Rodmilla had considered for the masquerade, this one was simply made and much more tastefully decorated. It was truly breathtaking - a work of art. The neckline was lower than Danielle was used to, but still modest. It dipped gracefully in the middle, coming up to just below her shoulders on the sleeves. The details were exquisite, with small feathers on the open 'v' of the bodice and tiny pearl patterns along the sides. The sleeves were delicate layers of lace and pearls; the skirt consisted of a simple cream fabric with an overlying, open-fronted lace beauty.
Danielle stood fingering the dress silently as Gustave reached in the wardrobe again and pulled out the shoes. They, too, were absolutely beautiful, with dainty glass soles and small blue jewels forming a sunburst pattern.
"Oh, Gustave, they... you..."
"Wait." He smiled and reached into the wardrobe a final time, pulling out a masque made of dozens of tiny feathers like those on the dress, decorated with pearls and tiny blue jewels.
"Oh," Danielle breathed, unable to mutter anything else.
Gustave grinned proudly and handed the shoes and masque to Maurice's sister. "Hurry up now. You're already late, and I'm sure Jacqueline is waiting."
Danielle nodded, and Gustave left the room, pulling the door shut behind him. It only took a few moments to slip into the outfit; Maurice's sister used Jacqueline's beauty paints to alter Danielle's features. Once the masque and shoes were in place, Danielle could hardly recognize herself in Jacqueline's mirror. It was perfect.
Maurice's wife and sister pulled open the door and led Danielle out to the hall where Gustave was waiting. When she stepped out, his facial expression was one she had never seen before.
"Don't laugh. This was your idea."
"I'm not laughing," he said, and for once he was entirely serious. "Elly, you... you're beautiful."
Danielle could feel a flush crawl up her neck to her cheeks. "Well, it's your dress, Pighead." She couldn't help laughing a little at the thought. "Where did you get it, anyway? It fits perfectly."
Now Gustave was the embarrassed one. "Actually, I've had it. It's... sort of a family heirloom. The only thing of value I have, and a miracle my family came to own it in the first place."
Danielle nodded. A servant's family owning such an expensive garment was rare. "Did your mother make it?"
"My grandmother. Actually, my great-grandmother started it, but she couldn't afford the detail and all." He gestured to the feathers and lace and pearls. "She was making it for my grandmother's wedding, and the fabric part was completed in time for it to be used. As my grandmother grew older, though, she collected the pieces for the decorations and finished it in time for my mother to wear it at her own wedding."
"Oh." The sentimental value made the dress so much more personal in Danielle's mind. "Did she make the shoes and the masque, too?"
"The shoes were made the same way the dress was - started for my grandmother and finished in time for my mother's. The masque my grandmother made with the leftover trim, and my mother wore it in place of a veil. It took a lot to get the feathers and jewels and all. My grandmother didn't want to waste any of it."
Maurice's wife interrupted the conversation. "It's a lovely story, Gustave, but we must get the mistress going. She's late already."
Gustave nodded, forcing himself to look away from Danielle at Maurice's wife. "Yes. Is the carrige ready?"
"Carriage?" Danielle hadn't even thought of how to get to the ball. The family had only one carriage; the Baroness, Marguerite, and Jacqueline had taken it already.
"Jacqueline arranged for a friend at court to repay her a favor. You know how she is, all sweetness and kindness and willing to do anything for anybody. I told her you couldn't possibly walk all the way to the ball." He shrugged. "And we now have a carriage."
Danielle smiled. That was Jacqueline. There was not a young lady within the Baroness's social circle who did not owe Jacqueline in some way, and Jacqueline was rarely willing to accept anything in return.
Gustave helped Danielle into the carriage and climbed onto the driving seat. Hopefully the Baroness would not see them arriving - and if she did, she would assume that Gustave had been hired by another courtier to drive them. After all, he worked for whoever paid; he did not belong to the Baroness as Maurice's family did.
When they reached the gate at the end of the gravel lane, Danielle turned and waved at the two women who had raised her. Then she settled back and enjoyed the ride in an actual carriage.
To Be Continued...