42. In Tow

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By the time we arrived at Lady Metcalf's, I was a nervous wreck. And I didn't mean some figurative speech kind of wreck. I meant an old Spanish galleon, with broken masts, a rotting hull and missing canons – and, possibly with the rotting skeleton of the captain in the master cabin.

Blast, blast, blast! What am I going to do? Lord help me, what am I going to do?

The coach crunched to a halt on the gravel outside Lady Metcalf's residence, and Wilkins leaned over to my little sister with a look in his eyes as though he'd just been hit over the head with a heavy cudgel. Or maybe he was in love.

"You look so beautiful tonight, Miss Ella."

"Um... thank you, Sir Philip. You are too kind."

"No, I tell you nothing but the truth. And to further enhance your beauty, I wondered if you would do me the honour of wearing this in your hair tonight?"

He pulled a single white rose from behind his back. Ella paled. I could see what was going on in her head as clearly as though she had told me herself: she had accepted his attentions, even his gifts, because it was what courtesy demanded. But openly wearing a sign of his affection, and thus accepting it? I could tell, something in her was screaming that it would be a betrayal to Edmund, her love.

Silly, of course. It wasn't a betrayal – It was only a ruddy flower! But there it was.

"I... feel honoured," she began haltingly.

"But then," Sir Philip interrupted her, "I reconsidered. I thought that maybe this flower would fit the colour of your hair better!" And letting go of the white rose, he pulled out a sunflower, as big as my palm. Ella's eyes widened.

"And then, Miss Ella, I again thought, no. Nobody would see it. We need contrast to show off your beauty in the best light, it is what you deserve. So I brought this." And he pulled out a red rose. With an uncertain smile, he looked at Ella. "I simply cannot choose; they are all so beautiful! Could you perhaps pick one for me? Or maybe just wear them all? That would be the simplest solution. We could put the sunflower here, and the roses..."

I had heard enough.

"My sister is a lady, and not a flower-arrangement," I cut him off, briskly. "You forget, Sir, that she has to dance, and those beautiful flowers might fall out of her hair and get trampled underfoot. We wouldn't want that, now, would we?"

"Oh... oh, I suppose you're right." The knight looked crestfallen, like a little puppy that had been denied his stick to play with, and for a moment I almost felt something like pity. Then he perked up. "But she could always wear them after the dance, or maybe..."

I pulled Ella out of the carriage before he could finish the sentence. The others were already out there, enjoying the attentions of servants who were bowing, taking coats and opening doors, something which in our house happened very seldom.

"Quick, quick, take my coat!"

"You there! Open the door!"

I sighed, trying to shut out my twin sisters' voices. At home, If you wanted to wait until Leadfield had opened a door for you, you'd probably die of old age, and if you wanted him to take your coat, he'd collapse under the weight. So this was a very welcome change, especially for Anne and Maria.

The swarm of buzzing servants escorted us to the ball room, where Lady Metcalf was already awaiting us. I looked around anxiously. But the lean, dark figure I feared to see was nowhere in sight. Just Lady Metcalf.

"Ah! Mrs Brank! Miss Linton, Miss Linton, Miss Linton, Miss Linton, Miss Linton and Miss Linton! Thank you very much for coming. I am delighted that you could make it."

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