Mending the Duke’s Heart – Bridget Barton

Miss Ella Ward gave her hand a good shake and did her best to stretch her back in the wooden seat. She used the moment to steal a glance out of the window. Already the sun was setting, and lamplighters were making their rounds. Spring was on its way in, and each day got a little bit brighter. Still, Ella saw little of it. Instead, she sat in her chair, working in the back room of her mother’s dress shop. Occasionally she would get up and move her simple wooden chair to keep her project in the sunlight streaming through the small kitchen window. However, soon the sun would begin its descent down below the London buildings, and Ella would be forced to light the rush to work by. It was a poor source of light, but with the residual sunset streaming in, it was enough. The lamplighter was often the signal that the last rays of the sun were about to disappear, and it was time for her to switch to the costlier but brighter oil lamp. She could hear her mother beyond the curtain that separated the small kitchen from the shop up front. She was showing several of Ella’s latest dress designs to a very indecisive customer. Ella had the sudden desire to be the one out front with the customers, rather than back in the kitchen doing the stitching. She repositioned the long line of cut fabric over her lap before taking up the needle again. It was a simple cream-coloured muslin dress for morning wear.

It was so simple; in fact, Ella was having difficulty focusing on it. The customer who ordered it was a bit of a regular of Mrs Ward’s Dressmaking Shop. The daughter of a lesser baron married to a shipping merchant, Mrs Henson, seemed to sit on the gentry’s fringe. For her, that meant the need for morning dresses, something Ella had never needed, and yet never had the financial means for anything beyond simple and plain designs. Ella liked to consider herself somewhat of an aspiring dressmaker. Often ideas for new gowns came to her through the day and night, and she would be compelled to sketch them outright at that moment no matter the hour. Most of the more intricate designs were saved in a collection next to the shared bed in the shop’s back half. The standard, practical designs were the ones that made it to the front of the shop to be given as options. Mrs Ward’s shop simply didn’t have the clientele of the upper crust of society. Having rented the spot just off the main Covent Garden road of shops, they were often passed by.

It didn’t stop Ella from making one of her creative, elaborate designs to at least sit on a form in the front window of the shop. She had promised her mother, Maria, that she would only work on these creations in her private time, late into the night as her mother slept. Then she would hang them in the window once finished hoping that someone would see it and wish to it buy one day. The Wards were not starving as many families seemed to be in London’s bustling centre, but they certainly were not well off. Things had gotten significantly harder when Mr Ward had lost his arm at the factory. As the shift foreman, Mrs Ward had considered it a less dangerous job. Still, when the shuttle on the machine had stuck partway through, it was Mr Ward who had reached his hand in to restore it to its place. The gears had not been completely locked in place. As he reached into the contraption, the gear’s teeth had settled into place, switching the weaving pattern and severing Mr Ward’s arm at the elbow. Back then, Mrs Ward had been taking laundry in.

Ella fondly remembered those younger years where she sat by her mother’s washtub playing with rag dolls and smelling the lavender-scented lye soap. With the added income of washing and a foreman’s higher pay, the Ward family had been reasonably comfortable, almost middle class. Mr Ward’s arm had never healed all the way, however, and soon he took a fever. He knew the hardship his death would be on his little family and therefore made a valiant effort to fight for his life. In the end, he lost the battle. The few regular clients of washing were not enough to support the two in the humble London apartment. Mrs Ward had always been handy with a thread and needle, and friends had complimented her often for the skills she showed with her own homemade gowns. Seeing that this skill was the only hope for herself and her daughter to survive without both being sent to the factories themselves, the two ladies left their comfortable home behind. They took up residence in the small shop. The first few years had been the worst.

There were many nights both Ella and her mother retired to bed with empty bellies. The landlord cared little that Mrs Ward was widowed and starting her own business from scratch. All that concerned Mr Brown was that the rent was paid on time when he visited the shop every month. Ella was twelve when her father died, and they moved to the shop. She had learned basic math and reading at a small school provided by a lady in their apartment building Now, however, basic reading had been deemed sufficient for her needs, and instead, all of Ella’s time was spent learning her mother’s skills. With only one pair of hands making the dresses and seeing to the mending, it would not have mattered if they had a hundred customers a day. One seamstress simply did not have enough hours in the day to work to keep both their mouths fed. By Ella’s thirteen year, Mrs Ward began to trust her daughter to make entire dresses all on her own. When she wasn’t doing the simple work for the shop, Ella did the household duties. She learned quickly how to cook, clean, and see to all the needs in their home so that her mother could focus solely on filling any order that came through their shop door.

Now Ella was twenty, and life was finally starting to get comfortable again for them. With a few regular customers from the gentry, they were able to fill their bellies every day. Though Mrs Ward’s dresses were the finest in London in Ella’s opinion-and in many other opinions as well-they were still not well known by many beyond the middle class and lesser gentry. Ella knew it was in the upper-class of society that they would genuinely find enough work to provide regular security for their shop. Though they were no longer starving, their current financial situation was tenuous at best. If anything was ever to happen to Mrs Ward—who was now getting on in age—they still didn’t have enough loyal clients for Ella to keep the shop up on her own. This future grew closer and closer as Mrs Ward’s arthritis seemed to ail her more and more every day. Ella had done her best to take on the brunt of the work, leaving her mother now to tend to the customers at the front of the store or see to the household chores. She had also set aside her love for designing and creating extravagant gowns. Instead, she opted to use her late-night sewing sessions to do extra orders to spare her mother the pain of working.

As of yet, they had not had to turn any customers away for lack of sewing hands, but Ella feared the time was not far off when Mrs Ward would be unable to contribute to the seamstress duties at all. Then Ella would be responsible for all the work required to keep them up on rent and well-fed. It was a worry never spoken of between the mother and daughter, yet always present in the room with them. For Mrs Ward, the answer was to just keep working through the pain. To push herself harder, and no doubt into the grave next to her husband. Ella knew this was not a practical solution. If they were to get their shop in the view of the ton, they would be getting new orders by the hundreds. It was well known that fine ladies wanted new dresses to stay up with the changing fashions every Season. With that amount of work brought in by a higher class of clientele, they could charge more for intricate designs and take in enough orders that hiring an extra seamstress could be manageable. “Your head is always in the clouds wishing to be somethin’ you’ll never be,” had been Mrs Ward’s opinion on her daughter’s desires.

“Makin’ them fancy dresses to sit in the window. Thinkin’ some fine lady’ll come on down this road and wish you to make ‘em for her. You need to stop the dreamin’ and use the wasted time to work.” With her mother’s arthritis and the cold of the last winter, Ella had no choice but to take her mother’s advice. The same dress had sat in their window front since last August, whereas she would have always changed them out with the changing seasons in the past. Instead, the same dress had tried its hardest to entice a new class of customers unsuccessfully while she had done her best to take on her work and as much of her mother’s work as she could. Ella Ward let out a long sigh as she continued her simple stitch that would run the length of the skirt when the tinkling of the bell caught her attention. She stilled for a moment. She could hear her mother still working with one client while the voices of two new customers came in behind her. “Ella,” her mother called back from the store.

Grateful for the break from the tedium, Ella stood and set the half-made gown on the wooden kitchen table. She felt like a rusty machine as her joints moved again for the first time in hours. It was an oddity to have two customers simultaneously, let alone with the hour stretching on to supper time. Ella expected it was Mrs Smith come to collect her husband’s jacket. Ella had planned to deliver it in person in the morning, as she often did for the lesser gentry, but clearly, Mrs Smith had come in knowing it should be done by now. To Ella’s surprise, when she slid through the curtain, it was two young misses that stood in the shop. They were both dressed in fine cotton walking dresses with fashionable hats elaborately decorated with pheasant feathers. They were looking at the dress in the store window. “My daughter, here, will be happy to assist you,” Mrs Ward announced to the two ladies. “I’d be happy to show you some designs if you’re in the market for a new gown.

” Ella reached below the table that separated her from the front of the store as she always did with new clients. “I’m actually quite intrigued by this one,” one of the ladies spoke, pointing her gloved hand at the model. It had been one of Ella’s riskier designs. The high waist had split to reveal a soft blue silk skirt below. The dress’s bodice was in the blue silk plaited together along the neckline with a delicate pink lace fringe. The back of the dress had gathered slightly at the empire waist with a modest train that trailed just slightly longer than the hemline. “Would this not be perfect for Friday’s dinner that Viscount Rothburd is hosting, Lady Clarissa?” the girl continued to her friend. Ella’s heart skipped a beat as she came around the table to join the two ladies. For once, her work had attracted the attention she had hoped it would. “I don’t know, the sleeves are all wrong for this Season.

” Lady Clarissa picked at the pink lace that hemmed the long sleeves. “It won’t take me long at all to shorten the sleeves if you wish it, your ladyship. You would look right pretty in it, and I would guarantee to have it done in time for your fancy ball,” Ella responded with a polite curtsy as she came up to them. Both ladies studied her for a second, though one with a much friendlier eye than her companion. “It’s not a ball, dear, just a private dinner,” Lady Clarissa spoke with exasperated distaste. Ella expected to be looked down on by these two ladies but hadn’t anticipated the sudden streak of resentment that suddenly boiled up inside her. “Oh, hush, Lady Clarissa. She had no way of knowing that,” the companion responded, waving her friend off. “My, where are my manners. I’m Lady Pamala Edmundson, and this is my dear friend, Lady Clarissa Rowe.

” “Ella Ward,” Ella responded, adding a second curtsy for good measure. “Do you really think you could alter the sleeves and have it done by week’s end, Miss Ward?” Lady Pamala asked, looking back at the dress. “More than just the hem,” Ella responded, lighting up at the prospect of selling one of her own designs to a bonified lady of the ton. “We could make them capped, and I’d ruffle ‘em up like the bodice and reattach the lace. Wouldn’t that just be lovely?” “I think that would be perfect,” Lady Pamala stated though she turned to her friend for confirmation. “I suppose it would do for a private dinner party,” she reluctantly agreed. She took off a glove and rubbed the silk between her fingers. “It’s not the finest material, but it will just be a few families, and since the Season hasn’t truly begun, I see nothing wrong with wearing the gown.” Ella was keenly aware that it wasn’t the finest silk, but it was the only silk she could allow herself to buy when they had no real need for the material in their shop. Most of their clients stuck to muslin and cotton.

There was also the fact that she had made this particular dress from an old design taken apart and re-sewn in a new fashion. Silk was delicate, and she knew that it had suffered under the extra handling. “Good,” Lady Pamala nodded. She shined a satisfied grin at her friend’s reluctant approval.

.

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