It was going to be a grand occasion. The Hartwell family had sent out the invitations a week previous; the select one hundred on the guest list had been expectant of an evening which would amaze and enthrall. These were the elite of the high society town of Cherford in the south of late nineteenth-century England. They flocked the upper floors of the Finch and Linnet store - the only place to purchase that season's styles á la mode - which was reserved for persons of their denomination, desperate to find the most exquisite and decorous ensemble. Each lady planned on being surpassed by nobody other than the reason for the celebration herself, as it would be most inconsiderate to overshadow her on the eve of her debut into their world of upper-class glitter and luxury.
The girl in question, Miss Amelie Eva Hartwell, was currently being tweaked and tugged to perfection in the dressing room adjacent to her bedroom on the third floor of the Hartwell Mansion, where the party of that evening was being hosted.
Downstairs the finishing touches were being made in the ballroom, dining room, and sitting room (or the ''recieving'' room, as it was commonly used for guests who visited the family on ordinary days), where the main event was to take place. For the past three days the large house had been full of rushing servants, frantic cooks, dressmakers and caterers and flower arrangers and every kind of assistant imaginable as the household prepared for what would surely be the most important event of her young life.
Obediently Amelie stood as still as she was able as her maid pulled her corset tight enough to cinch her waist a few inches and give her a more alluring figure. The dress that had been custom-made for her was waiting on a hanger on the mirrored dressing screen, the outside of which was covered by black embroidered Chinese silk. Her maid helped her into it carefully, so as not to tear the delicate white lace which decorated the inside of the hem and the wrap that went with it, which was also dotted with small pearls to match the comb that had been tucked into her hair. It was sleeveless and ruched, displaying her smooth white shoulders and her long elegant neck, as her golden hair was piled on top of her head with a few curls loose to frame her heart-shaped face, held in place by the silver comb. It was an amaranthine shade which went well with her pale complexion.
"There, Miss," the maid said brightly. There was a different one every week, and Amelie couldn't remember this girl's name. She had a beaming face and a blunt black fringe under her white cap. "You look beautiful, if I may say so."
"Thankyou," she murmured in reply, picking up the front of her flowing skirts so as not to trip or tear them as she walked.
At that moment the family butler knocked upon the door and entered as the maid shouted a feeble, "Come in!"
"Stunning, as always, my dear," he said briskly. He was a tall thin man with a balding head of brown hair and cool grey eyes by the name of Brant, and had been with the Hartwells for as long as Amelie could remember. "The guests are arriving. Before you make your entrance, your parents wish to speak with you in the first floor parlour."
"Of course," Amelie replied, unable to stop her smooth forehead creasing in puzzlement. Her parents should be downstairs greeting the guests as they entered their home. Whatever they needed to discuss must have been important. She dismissed the maid and took Brant's arm; he walked her down the polished mahogany stairs and closed the door behind her as she stepped into the parlour where Mr and Mrs Hartwell were waiting.