There was the sound of crunching of horses’ hooves on gravel and the household staff lined up outside in the frosty late afternoon to welcome the distinguished guests to The Grange for Christmas.
The light was fading already but there were lights blazing from very window of The Grange, making it look like a giant lantern in the midst of white-tinged fields.
Grooms and valets rushed forward to open the carriage doors and help the occupants down the steps and into the house itself. They had been travelling for many hours and would be stiff with the cold. There were hot toddies available in the Great Hall, as they entered the house, while their trunks and other belongings were taken upstairs to be arranged for them later.
The extra festive decorations lent the House a warm and convivial air and everyone was in good spirits. There were already delicious smells coming up from the kitchen and there were silver plates and glasses set out in almost every reception room, ready for the celebrations.
“Welcome Lord and Lady Fitzroy” said Lord Dearing as they entered his home. “I trust you will be comfortable during your say.”
He bowed to the two young ladies behind them “Caroline, Eleanor, my daughters will show you to your rooms.
Sophia, Alex and Louisa took them by the hands and led them both upstairs, chattering as they went. Soon all you could hear on the first floor was giggling and screeching and doors banging as they went from room to room, making themselves at home.
David was already in the Drawing Room with George and his mother Lady Thomas who had arrived earlier in the day. They heard the commotion in the hall and went out to greet the guests too.
“I am so happy that you are all here to share Christmas with us” said David “I am sure it will be one to remember for a long time!”
There was to be afternoon tea, with neat sandwiches and iced cakes, in the Dining Room. Then everyone would have chance to rest and change before the grand dinner at night. After that was over the rugs in the Dining Room would be rolled back and there would be a little dancing and some card playing for the older guests or the young ones when they got tired. Some of the neighbours had promised to call round in the evening and they were all going to practice their carol singing before the big day.
Emma came down and sat with David in the Morning Room as the Dining Room was being made ready for later.
“George seems in good spirits?” he said to her
“Yes, he seems happy to be here. I am glad that you two are talking again at least.”
“Yes, he did try to apologise, well as close as George ever comes to saying sorry!”
She looked ruefully at him
“He isn’t all bad, you know”
“I know that!” David was clear “We did share rooms at Cambridge; he is a decent sort under it all. I think that having money and freedom has gone to his head.”
“I pray that he settles down.” She said
“He will” said David “He just needs the love of a good woman.”
Emma laughed “She’d have to be a strong woman, not a mouse.”
“Oh, there’s someone out there for everyone, you know.”
“You don’t have to tell me that!” She replied, toying with the sapphire and diamond ring on her finger.
“Couldn’t William make it for Christmas? The invitation extended to him too, you know.”
“I know, your family is very kind, but he had to be at home, couldn’t leave his parents. I shall see him there in the New year.” She smiled at the prospect and David squeezed her hand.
“I am glad that you are so happy.” He said
“I only wish to see you as happy.” She replied.
They were interrupted by the girls from upstairs coming in to join them. They talked all afternoon until one by one they drifted off back upstairs to take a nap and get ready for the evening’s entertainments.
George came in to ask David if he fancied a breath of fresh air before dinner.
“We might work up an appetite!” he said cheerfully
“Right!” said David “I will be glad to. Let me get my coat and I’ll meet you outside.”
They walked around the gravel paths as the grass and lawned areas were heavy and wet with mud and the last of the fallen leaves. He guided George round to his fountain which was almost complete. I have some plans for rather a spectacular event in a few days’ time he told him. If we can get it filled with water in time. The weather is not really cooperating; it has been freezing too much!”
George was impressed. You have done all this since I was last here? You must have been really determined to finish it.”
“Yes, it is for someone very special” David said quietly.
George said very little, remembering his last indiscretion.
“Come on!” David brightened, keen to not let anything spoil the next few days “I’m sure I can smell the roast beef being carved!”
They raced laughing, towards the house like a couple of schoolboys.
The seating plan had been carefully devised by Lady Dearing and Mrs Salt. Naturally David was seated between Caroline and Emma while George sat opposite them with Sophia and Alex either side of him. The conversation was funny and lively, the cousins teasing each other with childhood exploits and scrapes, now half-remembered and highly exaggerated to cause maximum embarrassment in front of their newer guests.
Caroline was tickled to learn that George had got that rather fetching scar under his eye because he had fallen in his schoolroom when carrying a pencil. He had told her earlier that he got it fighting a duel at university over the honour of a particularly pretty young lady. She spent the rest of her stay teasing him about “duelling with pencils” much to the other girls’ delight.
Their first evening all together passed very pleasantly with everyone getting along amazingly well. There seemed to be a little rivalry between Eleanor and Alex for George’s attentions, but no one thought it serious enough to be worried.
When Grayson, the tall, blue-eyed son of the Dearing’s nearest neighbours arrived George was all but abandoned, much to his sister’s amusement.
“Oh dear, where are your admirers now, George? She asked him “Oh I see them. They are teaching Grayson how to dance.”
George scowled and slunk off into a corner of the room to join in a game of cards with his uncle and Caroline’s father. He lifted out the old card table, swivelled the top to reveal the cards underneath, in the hidden compartment, and then opened up the wooden top to reveal the green baize playing surface.
The dancing carried on for a while and Caroline looked at David expectantly as he finished dancing with Emma.
“May I fetch you a drink, Caroline?” he asked her
“No,” she pouted “But you can dance with me if you haven’t forgotten how.”
“That would be very pleasant” he replied “I need to cool down first though. Why not dance with George, he hasn’t moved from that card table all evening.”
Caroline looked displeased, but when David returned she was up at the dancing end of the room with George. She seemed to have managed to shake him out of his bad humour as he was smiling now. He was probably feeling happy that he could make Alex and Eleanor jealous, by dancing with Caroline. David did not feel any such thing seeing him with Caroline though.
He resigned himself to having to dance with her before the end of the evening, but next time he looked she had gone. Maybe she was getting a little cooler air in the conservatory. He was just happy that he didn’t have to be the one to take her in there.