17. Return to the Game

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"W-what?" I gasped

"And one from another gentleman, for you, Miss Lillian," Leadfield repeated, stoically.

"I heard you the first time! But when? Why? And in God's name, from whom?"

"Err... they arrived just now Miss. As to why..." the old butler blushed a little. "Well, I couldn't say. And from whom... I think I saw a card with the bouquet, but I did not read it."

Frantically I sprang up and rushed to Leadfield, desperate to know the name of my hidden enemy. I ripped the card out of the bouquet, unfolded it and read:

"In memory of the first ball where we did NOT dance together. I am looking forward to changing that soon.

Lieutenant Ellingham."

Only when silence spread over the room did I realize that I had read aloud. The gazes of my entire family turned to me, and I wished heartily that I could just sink into the floor and disappear.

"Who is Lieutenant Ellingham?" asked Gertrude.

"He wanted to dance with you?" asked Maria.

"Is he a madman?" asked Anne.

"What does he mean, 'the first ball where you did NOT dance together'?" asked Lisbeth.

"He's an officer," my aunt interrupted the barrage of questions, twirling her spoon thoughtfully. "You could do a lot worse, Lillian. Better secure him before he changes his mind. Oh yes, you'd better hurry, before he actually gets to know you."

I didn't really hear any of them. I was still in shock. Lieutenant Ellingham? Lieutenant Ellingham? He wished to make an offer to me? To seek my hand? It seemed hardly creditable.

Not that I did not believe him capable of flattering himself into the belief I might be attracted to him. From what I had seen so far, he could flatter himself into believing that the sky was brown and the earth blue. But what in the name of Jesus and all his Apostles could make him attracted to me? I had done my very best to be as ghastly to him as humanly possible!

I looked down at the card again, hoping that maybe it might have disappeared, or changed its message. But there it was still, like a massive viper just waiting to bite me. Maybe it was just a joke. Maybe he wouldn't show up here after all. Yes, that had to be it. He probably was having fun with his drinking buddies from the regiment, imagining my face at this very moment.

Resolutely, I crumpled the card and dumped it into my empty porridge bowl.

"You shouldn't have done that," remarked Maria sweetly. "In your place, I would have framed it and hung it on the wall – because of the scarcity value, you know."

Not deeming to give her a reply, I rushed out of the room and into the garden. I did not have the time for either her or the oh-so-funny Lieutenant Ellingham at the moment. It was only an hour till nine o'clock and I needed to get changed.

If I remembered correctly, Mr Ambrose didn't tolerate tardiness.

*~*~**~*~*

Wisely, I had stashed the clothes I had borrowed from my uncle in the garden shed. Nobody ever came in there, so I changed in the dusty little wooden shack, without fear of discovery. I was quite glad in fact that I wasn't putting on the baggy, striped trousers and oversized jacket in my room: there, I couldn't have helped looking in the mirror. Oh, how I was looking forward to receiving my first pay check and buying clothes in which I could pass for an actual gentleman, not just a scarecrow wearing rags three sizes too big for her. Or him. Depending on your point of view.

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