Up in the blazing ballroom the musicians had taken their place on the small raised platform at the far end and could be heard tuning their instruments above the general hubbub of chat and laughter. The waiting-on staff milled around in freshly starched aprons and smart tunics, seeing to it that no one was left with an empty plate or unfilled glass.
David stood on the fringes, watching his sisters in their finery looking hopefully at the handsome young men. They had their dance cards clutched in their hands and were comparing notes. George came up to him.
“So David, who’s your first victim?”
“I haven’t actually got round to asking anyone yet” he confessed. “I do think that Alexandra is rather hoping that you will ask her though”
“It will be a pleasure! But only I you ask the delightful Caroline”
David rolled his eyes heavenwards and sighed.
“Anything for my sister’s happiness”
They went their separate ways to approach the ladies and ask them for the pleasure of the first dance.
The evening went surprisingly well. David danced with Emma, his cousin, who seemed a little distracted. He tried to find out what it was that was worrying her but she only asked him if he found George just the same as ever. He thought about his and declared him the same old George. Maybe a little more venturous, but at his age it was only to be expected. He reassured her that he was confident he would soon settle down and take things more seriously. It must be a heady kind of shock to find yourself suddenly the head of the family and estate, with no one to tell you what to do anymore. He was sure that he would let off a little steam and then return to his sensible self in no time
He was very fond of Emma and put her worries down to the stress of losing her beloved father so recently and missing his calm and solid presence.
“Come riding with me tomorrow, before I go off to London” he urged “the fresh air will do you good. I confess I have an ulterior motive too – I could do with your good advice.”
She smiled at her cousin “Of course, I look forward to it. Do you think Sophia will let me try her new horse?”
“I’m sure she would grant her favourite cousin anything”
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough. David danced with several of the young ladies, and Caroline twice. She was charming towards him, letting him bring her cordial and allowing him to take a turn round the garden with her when it got too hot in the ballroom. She talked of her dull life in Shropshire and her longing to go to and enjoy the social life like the Debutantes. “I begged mama to let me go to this season, but she wouldn’t listen!”
She pouted prettily and looked at him expectantly.
“I am going to London in a couple of days” he ventured
“How wonderful” she sighed “Are you going to any grand balls?”
“No, not at all”
She looked disappointed
“I am attending a scientific demonstration at the Royal Society”
“Really?” she started to pull the petals off the rose adorning her dress
“Yes, this could be the answer to my prayers, a way for me to bring back more living specimens for the gardens here.”
She yawned, trying to hide it behind her fan.
He showed her into the hothouses and explained where each of the flowers came from.
“I like the pink ones” she exclaimed “May I have one for my dress?”
He tried to explain that is was a rare species and that there were only a handful of blooms in the country.
“Shouldn’t we get back to the house?” she said a little piqued.
“Of course” he led the way back to the crowded ballroom.
His father had been looking for him.
“I have been speaking to Caroline’s father tonight.” He looked very pleased with himself,
“I would say that he was not averse to your asking him for her hand in marriage. I can’t tell you what a good match it would be for you. He owns most of and has an estate in the West Country! I take it that you like Caroline? You seem to be spending some time with her.”
She’s very nice and is certainly pretty.”
“What more could a man want in a wife” his father beamed at him
“This is all very sudden” David started
“Don’t worry dear boy, if you insist on a long engagement you will have plenty of time to get to know each other!”
David watched Caroline as she talked to his sisters over by the French windows. He tried to imagine her as his wife, living here at The Grange. He could see that she would get on well with his sisters, but one by one they would be married and move away. His parents were well suited and seemed to be happy together. He wondered if he could ever be that happy with someone like Caroline.
He relented, thinking that if she did love his special blooms he’d have a bouquet made up to include one or two of them and put into the room that night. He went out to the hothouse and chose carefully, feeling slightly sick at cutting healthy flowers that he’d struggled so hard to obtain, but he pictured Caroline’s delight when she saw them in her room. She could even take one for her dress.
He wrapped them in twine and asked Louisa and Sophia to arrange them prettily in a vase with roses and gardenia from the formal gardens, for him. He asked Polly to put them in Caroline’s room. He looked forward to hearing about her enchantment with them the next morning.
However, when he came down for breakfast he didn’t quite get the reaction he was expecting.
He was faced with petulant looks and exaggerated sighs.
“David” Caroline glared at him accusingly “What were you thinking?”
He just looked at her uncomprehendingly
“Poor Butterfly hasn’t stopped sneezing all night.”
“Well, I am sorry to hear that, has he caught a cold?”
“No, David, he hasn’t caught a cold. It’s the flowers!”
“He could always sleep in the kitchen..” he ventured
“Butterfly and I are never parted!” she cried “I had to throw those flowers out. They smelled too strong!”
“What have you done with them?” he demanded to know.
“I got your girl to throw them out.” she said “But I don’t know if Butterfly will get over this, poor baby” she cooed at the dog nestled on her lap. David hadn’t heard it sneeze yet.
He rushed down to the kitchen. He saw Polly and Katie sitting at the kitchen table, shelling peas.
“Polly?” David asked her “What did you do with the flowers out of the guest bedroom?”
Polly looked worried “I put them in the scullery, sir”
He walked through there and saw Violet bending over the sink.
“Are these the new azaleas and hibiscus?” she looked at him accusingly
“Well, yes” he admitted. “I thought that Caroline would like them in her room”
Violet was gently stroking the soft petals as they lay crushed and mangled in the sink.
“She seems to have taken against them, quite violently” she said sadly.
David looked stricken and Violet had to feel sorry for him, instead of angry that he had destroyed such precious flowers.
“What happened?” she asked
“They made the dog sneeze!”
They looked at each other or a moment, then looked at the blooms.
“May I have them – to press them so they will be preserved?”
“I would love you to have them.” he replied “That is a very good idea.”
“Thank-you” Violet beamed up at him and he flushed with pleasure.
He looked a little brighter as he left the scullery, to return to his breakfast.