10. The Worst Fate Imaginable

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It was infuriating to have to go in through the garden door, climb up to my window, change, climb down again and return to the front. But I didn't want to give my aunt a coronary by appearing on her doorstep in a pair of striped trousers. When I finally arrived in front, the carriage was still waiting there, and so was my aunt, anxiously looking out into the street.

'Lillian!' She rushed out of the door as I approached, her hollow cheeks flushed, a determined smile on her face. Oh no. Anything that made my aunt this happy wouldn't be good. 'Finally, there you are! Where were you? Oh, don't bother, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're here. Come, come quickly you have to hurry! The ball starts in an hour!'

'Ball?' I asked, dread welling up inside me. 'What ball?'

'If you, silly girl, had just stayed at home like a proper young lady, you would know all about it. Your sisters, Anne and Maria, and I have been talking about nothing else for weeks.'

That would explain why I didn't remember. My ears were good at protecting themselves against unnecessary torture.

'Now come in and hurry, for God's sake!'

She rushed inside, skirts flying around her bony figure, and I followed with trepidation. 'Why a ball?' I wanted to know. 'What has a ball got to do to me? Anne and Maria get invited to balls, not me. I don't go to balls, never ever.'

'You will today,' my aunt trilled and made a pirouette in the middle of the room that was worthy of a prima ballerina. I could see it in her eyes: the golden glint that meant she was dreaming of finally being rid of us, and at a profit, too.

The trepidation in my chest was quickly evolving into panic. Me, at a ball? I hated balls! Balls meant society, society meant people, and people meant either women or men, or worse, both! I disliked men in general because they oppressed women, and I disliked women in general because most didn't at all seem to mind being oppressed. And now I would have to face both, mixed together?

Even worse – I had heard that at balls, people had to dance.

With one another. Both sexes!

'But surely,' I tried to reassure myself aloud, 'only Anne and Maria are going? I mean... they are the ones that everybody admires and wants to dance with.'

My aunt nodded, the happy glow of gold coins still gleaming in her eyes. 'I agree, no man in his right mind would want to invite you.'

'Oh... err... thanks.'

'Considering how uncouth and tanned and misbehaved you are.'

'How nice of you to be so explicit.'

'But,' she continued, turning her glittering eyes on me, 'Sir Phillip was so impressed by Maria and Anne's charms at the ball the other night that, now he is giving his own ball, he has issued an invitation for the entire family.'

Oh dear God! How could I escape this deadly trap?

'Sir Philip? Philip who?' I tried to stall her, my thoughts racing.

'Sir Philip Wilkins. Surely you must remember. I told you of his dancing with your sisters at Mr Marlow's Ball only two days ago.'

Actually I didn't remember. But I thought it best not to mention that to my dear aunt.

Concentrate, I yelled at myself. Think of some excuse! You are not going to this infernal ball. Don't you remember what Patsy told you about what balls are like? Hours of aimless chatter, and your feet hurt from dancing for days afterwards? No, no, no!

But my aunt seemed to read my thoughts as if they were broadcast on my face. 'Don't you dare think of not coming,' she hissed and wagged a bony finger at me. 'This might very well be our only chance at getting you introduced into society. We all have to go. Even Mr Brank is coming.'

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