She was so perfect. Her skin looked flawless and her eyes glittered like jewels. My round face resembled a boy’s and my eyes were dirt brown. Her hair was always set in the latest fashion, her thick, red curls catching the twinkling lights of the chandelier in the ballroom. My mousy hair blended in with all the other variations of brown-haired women. Her richly coloured silk and taffeta gowns were sent from Paris. They cocooned every curve of her plump body, evidence of her healthy appetite and rich diet. My plain and drab gowns barely hid my sickness-plagued body. I was hopelessly average.
Her voice was music to men’s ears and filled women with envy. Her tinkling laugh drew everyone to her, in desperate longing to bask in her glow. She was constantly surrounded by family members as the fifth daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, always attending operas, plays, balls, teas and soirees with a multitude of people trailing after her. I was completely alone.
And she had the perfect fiancé. James Selwyn was an orphan, just like me. He had been discovered at the orphanage and brought to live with a relative in London, just like me. The difference was that his uncle was a peer of the realm, a gentleman, with a pile of pounds at his disposal. I was utterly poor.
I would see the way that James’ eyes would find hers in a crowded ballroom. If only he would look at me like that. A slow smile would creep up on his lips and he would look away quickly, careful to appear impartial towards his fiancée. I could tell that their match wasn’t arranged, like countless others, on matters of convenience or political power. Instead there was a secret.
I could see it in the way he would dutifully bow to her, giving her an obligatory kiss on her gloved hand. His lips would linger there, pressing against the kidskin so as to penetrate onto the naked hand. I could see it when they danced, her sinuous body moving like a snake, and how intimately she would smile at him, peering up from under her eyelashes. I could it in the way they barely spoke at operas, seated in different corners of the theatre, maintaining a respectable distance while still stealing glances.
As one newcomer of London to another, James shared his stories with me of his first ball and encounters with peers of the realm. He told me his fears and worries of how to act in public and how restrained he often felt. He also spoke of life at the orphanage, which had been tough and imposed different restrictions.
And so I was able to be myself with him. I was able to laugh at his stories and share the same fears, of trying to fit in and follow the norms. We would call each other by our first names when no one was within earshot, reverting to proper titles and a stiff manner of talking when others were around. I loved knowing the difference.
He also told me of her, of how she wore a mask of perfection and how he had met her before, somewhere he couldn’t really remember. He told me her fears and how she was just like me, afraid of overstepping her bounds, of laughing too loudly, of making the wrong jokes, of how insignificant she was, of her body image and of ultimately being unloveable. She’s just like you, he would argue.
But I didn’t believe him. Maybe the mask was on too tight, too close to her face, so that I couldn’t see if she struggled, if she faltered, if her insecurities slipped out. I only saw her, a butterfly in all her glorious colours, flitting here and there, seducing men with one look or one dance. The wings were so brilliant, so bright, so exquisite and so tempting; they camouflaged her into the sumptuous gardens of the upper class. I couldn’t see the other side, the side that appeared only when the wings closed. She was always shining.