David Rose—handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a wide circle of admirers—seemed to unite in one person some of the best blessings of existence. He had lived nearly five-and-thirty years in the world with very little to distress or vex him. The eldest child of a most indulgent father and a most absent mother, David had long been acclaimed a leader of the ton and considered a stalwart of the most fashionable London assemblies. For some years now, anxious mothers had schemed for some one or other of their eligible sons or daughters to catch his eye at Almack's, though as yet all their initiatives had come to nothing.
This was not because David disdained such attentions. He was, if anything, rather too sensible to them. This, coupled with a fortune which allowed him to have his way more often than not, meant that David was more the object of envy than of respect.
Such circumstances did not by any means rank as misfortunes with David—but then sorrow came. His father made a series of unwise investments, while his mother made a rather cutting remark about Mrs Fitzherbert within earshot of the Prince Regent, and the whole family came within an ace of being imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt. In a matter of days, all of David's friends revealed themselves to be mere acquaintances who thought fashion inconsequential when fortune and favour were lacking. The Kentish estates were sold, the London townhouse was soon home to one of their creditors, the carriages and artwork and furniture seized by the bailiffs.
By the week's end, the family was seated in front of a solicitor whose duty it was to inform them that all which remained to them was the income of a small estate which had been entailed on David by a distant relation some years before.
"Two thousand pounds in the four per cents?" David echoed in disbelief. "You expect us all to live on a mere hundred pounds a year?"
Mr Smith cleared his throat and lowered his gaze. "Eighty pounds per annum, I think you'll find. But your great-aunt also bequeathed a house to you, sir, with some attached properties. They may not be quite the surroundings to which you are accustomed but—"
Next to David, his sister roused herself enough to wrinkle her nose. "It's not east of Regent Street, is it? How tedious; so inconvenient."
Mr Smith cleared his throat again, and shuffled some papers around on his desk before producing one which he now proffered to David's father. Mr Rose took it with the same, stunned look on his face which he had worn ever since the day the bailiffs had first appeared on the doorstep. "The house is not in London, Miss Rose. It is in ——shire."
"Where on earth is ——shire?" Alexis asked.
Mr Rose turned slowly in his chair to regard her. "You had the very best governesses that money could procure, and you don't know where ——shire is?"
"It is in the North Country," said Mr Smith, who was clearly proficient in stifling familial quarrels before they could truly begin. "The house itself is in a small town in the west of the county. Let me see if I can locate it in this atlas..."
And so the next day, David found himself—still handsome, still clever, but no longer rich and with much to distress and vex him—sharing some very close quarters with his parents, his sister, and what remained of their worldly belongings, heading north in the unspeakable shabbiness of a hired chaise towards the town of S—— Creek.
That S—— Creek was marked in an atlas of England was, quite frankly, astonishing. To say that it was a village with pretensions to being a market town was to be kind to it. The driver halted the chaise in front of a low, sprawling, ramshackle house on the town's outskirts and began without ceremony to remove their luggage. The building bore all the hallmarks of having been built in the time of Good Queen Bess, if not before, and of having been little maintained since.
"There must be some mistake," David said, peering out of the carriage. This was the property that Great-Aunt Rose had thought to bestow on a favoured great-nephew? Why, it didn't look as if the overgrown gardens contained a single folly.
"Is that a hole in the roof?" Mr Rose asked.
"I am Andromeda," Mrs Rose said in hollow but steadily rising tones, "a sacrifice chained to a rock by hubris and circumstance."
"Are those pigs in the garden?" Alexis asked, leaning out of the carriage window. "Are pigs supposed to be that size? There is a smell. Ought the countryside to have a smell, David?"
"I would ask why exactly you think I know what the countryside smells like," David said, "but frankly I have no desire to learn the answer." He looked out of the other carriage window, but even when seen through the additional remove of his quizzing glass, the prospect improved not one whit.
If David had his druthers, he would have turned around there and then and headed back to London, but the driver made it quite clear—in terms that David thought frankly uncalled for—that he had been paid to convey them this far and no further. The Roses and their trunks were deposited on the gravel, and the chaise bowled off south at a rapid clip.
David was contemplating walking after it, lack of fortune or appropriate footwear be damned, when the hovel's door opened with the kind of long, slow creak that David associated with the worst kind of amateur dramatic performances. He turned to see two figures standing in the doorway: one a petite woman with dark hair and a darker expression, the other some species of scarecrow.
The scarecrow spread his arms wide. "You made it! We were starting to think you'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. Welcome to Rose Manor."
The scarecrow—Sir Roland—was a lifelong resident of S—— Creek, born into a family which for the last two or three generations had been rising into a certain degree of prosperity, though perhaps not of gentility. He greeted the Roses with a vast amount of cheer, though it was difficult for David to pay much attention to his words. Sir Roland's clothing was not merely some seasons out of date, but several generations, and the battered, greasy wig which sat all askew atop his head may in fact have been alive.
As he stood back to let David and the others enter, David could see that Sir Roland was much of a piece with the house entire. What furniture there was in the low-ceilinged entryway was shrouded in dust cloths which performed their duty inadequately. Despite the warmth of the day outside, little light penetrated the grimy windows.
David sneezed. His mother let out a low wail of despair.
Sir Roland rambled on as if he could neither hear Mrs Rose's cries, nor see the look of profound horror on Mr Rose's face. "Stroke of luck you have the ancestral manor to return to, what? An Englishman's home is his castle, I always say, though obviously this isn't a castle, ha ha, but in the middle of what we might delicately call your current terrible misfortune, it is like a castle to be sure..."
He spoke for what seemed like another hour, leading them through the ground floor of the house to inspect a dusty dining room, a bedraggled drawing room, and a poorly stocked library which seemed positively Gothic. They were trailed by the dark-haired woman—a Miss Budd, whom David was given to understand was the housekeeper and indeed the entirety of the house's staff.
They finished up in the kitchen. There, Sir Roland rummaged in the pantry for long minutes before emerging with a platter of food. He sat down at the table and proceeded to eat with gusto. "You'll want to stock up on your stores of cold ham, of course," Sir Roland said around a mouthful of said foodstuff, settling back in his chair and scratching at his stomach with his free hand. "But that’s easy to do, Miss Budd can tell you where…” He trailed off slowly, as if noticing for the first time that all four Roses were standing in the kitchen doorway staring at him, their mouths agape. “Was it something I said?”
Within a few minutes the Roses were alone: surrounded only by the crumbling old house and their tight-mouthed new housekeeper and the unfamiliar quiet of the countryside.
Mr Rose had been incorrect in his observation of a hole in the roof—at least insomuch as he had used the singular noun when the plural form would have been more correct.
"There are buckets," Miss Budd said. "Somewhere." She sounded as dubious about this prospect as David felt. He'd never been a great romantic, impelled to wander the wilds of the Peak District while exclaiming at the beauty of the moors and the stars and et cetera. Stars were all well and good in their way, but not something that should be gazed upon while lying beneath one's counterpane.
The family's wholesale rejection of any of the bedrooms which lacked an intact roof meant that they were obliged to share: Mr and Mrs Rose in one, and David and Alexis in another. This latter showed the distressing signs of once having served as a nursery. In one corner stood a rocking horse which looked at David with a baleful eye. David glared back at it.
Alexis was similarly displeased. "This is not modish, David," she said, her eyes opened wide and her mouth a distressed, downward curve. "This is not the thing at all."
"Mmm. Lest there should be any confusion on the matter," David said, prodding gingerly at the counterpane and taking a step back when the gesture produced a little cloud of dust. "I shall take the bed farthest from the door, in case any of the barbarians hereabouts decides to murder us in our sleep tonight."
"Oh, David," Alexis wailed.
David would never have admitted, under pain of torture, that the look of sheer, exhausted misery on his sister’s face had changed his mind one whit. He simply went to sleep in the bed nearest the door on a whim—nothing more.
For the next week entire, the only time that David knew happiness was during the three or four seconds of blissful amnesia which he enjoyed on first waking. Then, of course, he remembered it all: that he was far from London, that to describe his present state as one of genteel poverty would have been optimistic indeed, and that his skin was continually exposed to linens which had likely last been aired during the time of Queen Anne.
None of this was cheering.
Nor were either his parents' obsessive plotting for some legal loophole which would allow them to resume their old lives, nor his sister's clumsy attempts at fortitude. David could only look on in dismay every time Alexis tied her bonnet strings and declared her determination to go for a walk through S—— Creek.
"You should come with me, you know," Alexis would say brightly each and every time, lightly rapping him on the forearm. "There may yet be some eligible beaux to be found here."
"There is no facet of that suggestion which is anything other than horrifying to me," David could only reply in tones of deep mortification. He may have lost all standing in the world, but that did not mean he had lost all his standards. To set out into the streets in the hopes that he could catch the eye of some rustic relation of Sir Roland's would have been desperate indeed. At any rate, he preferred to keep to the grounds of the Manor—though he was not, as his father said, moping, nor, as his mother put it, acting the veritable grumble-gizzard.
He chose to think of it merely as regrouping.
Besides, the housekeeper did not seem to think David's qualms about the town so very ridiculous. She clearly thought David was ridiculous, but as she possessed a dryly wicked sense of humour and the keys to the Manor's wine cellar, David could not bring himself to mind overly much.
Indeed, he found himself quite liking her.
Miss Stephanie Budd was the natural daughter of somebody. This somebody had placed her, several years before, at Mrs Lee's boarding school here in S—— Creek, and somebody had lately secured her the position of housekeeper and caretaker of the crumbling Rose Manor. This much was all that was generally known of her history, and if she knew more of her past herself, Miss Budd did not seem minded to reveal it to David.
David could understand her diffidence—after all, he had been acquainted with more than a few royal by-blows in his day, whose lives had been nothing but melodrama and smelling salts—although he could not quite understand why he found himself either inclined to respect it, or why he was interested in her in the first place. Boredom offered some explanation, it was true, but no matter how much ennui might have dogged him in his old life, he had never found himself fraternising below stairs.
But Miss Budd had beauty, even if she seemed almost determined to hide it, and conversation, even if she bestowed it with ill-ease, and a power of identifying what was ridiculous in life which was honed to a razor’s sharpness.
The only explanation that David could possibly see was that he had excellent taste—that Miss Budd must be something of a diamond in the rough—that encouragement should be given. More than encouragement, even: she should be elevated to the position in life which she truly deserved. For whoever her parents were, they must have occupied a station more exalted than that of a housekeeper.
David, in other words, was resolved to procure for Miss Budd a match.
Had David ever given voice to these thoughts in her company, perhaps things might have turned out quite differently for all concerned—but he did not, and the intimacy between the two of them was soon a settled thing.
Indeed, it was settled enough that although in public they remained Mr Rose and Miss Budd, between the two of them it was soon merely David and Stevie. David would have liked to think this proof that he was a daring, untrammelled free-thinker—using first names with the help!—but truth be told, it was hard to stand on ceremony with a woman who was wont to tell him that if the wind changed, he’d find his face stuck like that.
Such, indeed, was their intimacy that David did not fuss when Stevie turned him outdoors a fortnight after their arrival, and told him to get some fresh air. "For I cannot work with you fussing around me, and if you stay indoors much longer you’ll turn into a creature from one of Mrs Radcliffe’s novels."
To own the truth, David did fuss a little, but only because his hair was clearly incompatible with his being a Radcliffian creature.
Yet Stevie's reference, while sartorially misguided, gave some sense of purpose to his walk. The town of S—— Creek was not large, but Alexis had informed him that it was in possession of a lending library, and David liked to read more than was perhaps strictly fashionable. It was something about which his friends—well, his former acquaintances—had often teased him. Now, though, he had leisure time enough to indulge. Sufficient, perhaps, to even complete one of the many lists of books he had drawn up at various times in his journal—lists which invariably required more industry and patience than his life in London, or at a country house party, or travelling on the continent, had ever afforded him.
If he could no longer surround himself with physical objects of beauty and refinement, David told himself firmly, why not choose to adorn his mind with more abstract ones? Surely this town could use a new paradigm of accomplishment. He was willing to make that sacrifice.
From the gates of Rose Manor to the centre of S—— Creek was a distance of some half mile. It was not a half mile which could be said to rival London's bustle in any way. A row of small labourers' cottages—some shabby, some neat, all fronted by small gardens—was succeeded by a blacksmith's, a baker's shop, and some larger dwellings. The ample red-brick house set a little back from the road must be the boarding school for young ladies run by Mrs Lee and her wife, an institution which by all accounts bore very little resemblance to the various finishing schools and seminaries which Alexis had attended for periods both brief and eventful.
The Mesdames Lee's school formed one corner of the town green. Ranged around the various sides of the square were the buildings which constituted the true hub of S—— Creek: the church and its vicarage, the post office, a squat-looking inn, a haberdashery, the library, and some more houses whose venerable antiquity one might, if in a charitable frame of mind, claim lent an air of charm to their sagging roofs.
The library was not a building which David was predisposed to find charming, particularly once he entered. It was a dim, low-ceilinged space filled with a jumble of bizarre objects. Barely had his eyes adjusted to the low light when he found himself hailed by someone.
"Well, you must be Mr Rose!" exclaimed a short, beaming man who was standing, frankly, far too close to David for comfort. "Welcome, welcome! It is so good to see you in person at last! We were certainly beginning to think you were a most eccentric recluse, you know, on account of how you had not introduced yourself to anyone in the neighbourhood in the expected manner but Miss Budd assured us all you were not a recluse in what anyone might call the traditional sense so we were thinking perhaps just very rude! But now you are here so we shall all have to change our ideas! Are you here for the taxidermy services or a millinery consultation?"
David did not know how best to respond to this flow of volubility—particularly not once the short man pointed over his shoulder and David turned to find a stuffed goat staring at him balefully from beneath a chartreuse bonnet that could most charitably be described as a confection.
"Some samples!" the man continued on cheerfully. "I would of course recommend that you stay away from pastels! If you are here for a hat, that is."
"The sign outside," David said carefully, gesturing back towards the door, "states that this is a lending library."
"Oh, and so it is!" The man nodded, still beaming. "Library, millinery, select taxidermy services, and we have an apothecary in residence every other Tuesday excepting those occasions when his gout flares up."
"I see," David said, which was a lie. "Perhaps you might show me how to subscribe to the library?"
The smiling man—whose name, it seemed, was Raymond Butani—did so, and then proceeded to hover around while David selected some volumes to take with him. The library's stock of books, though small, was not utterly atrocious. The same could not be said for the quality of Mr Butani's stream of conversation, which mostly encompassed the daily habits of people whom David neither knew nor cared about.
"Of course," Mr Butani said, as he entered the titles of David's selections into the library's ledger in a careful hand, "you will be able to see Mrs Currie's carbuncle for yourself at the next of Sir Roland's little get-togethers! You and your family should all attend, because we are all very friendly and informal here in S—— Creek, you know, and no one would grumble very much if your attending meant there were not enough white soup to go around!"
"An insufferable presumption!" David punctuated his words with a stab of his fork into the dish of Welsh rarebit in front of him. "Insufferable."
"So you have said," Stevie said, working her way through her own meal with much more complacency. "Several times."
"To imagine that I, David Rose of, of Rose Manor"—he had almost slipped and said Mayfair, which did not salve the sting at all—"should need the condescension of an invitation from a third party to a social event hosted by the likes of Sir Roland? That I should need his notice? Insufferable. It is not to be borne."
"Ah," Stevie said. "Because you are already engaged for Wednesday evening, I take it, with one of the many other families of your acquaintance hereabouts."
David stared at her for a long moment, mouth agape. He had thought to spend that Wednesday evening in much the same manner as he had every Wednesday evening since first arriving here: trying to best arrange what was left of his wardrobe so that moths would not consume it before giving up and retiring early to bed.
"Well, there is no call for you to be snide," he said eventually.
"I shall be attending," Stevie said, scraping the last of the cheese from the bottom of her dish. "I usually do."
"Oh," David said. "Well. If you're going, I might as well accompany you."
The gathering which Sir Roland persisted in referring to as "our little soirée" was indeed as insufferable as Mr Butani's presumption had been, but David could not deny that the change of scene and the sight of some new faces was welcome—even if the society was something shocking and the white soup did not show the least sign of ever having been exposed to an endive.
Mr and Mrs Rose had flatly refused to stir out of doors that evening—David's mother clutching a bottle of smelling salts at the merest suggestion, and Mr Rose as always unwilling to do anything which offended his wife's sense of pride—but Alexis had eagerly accepted David and Stevie's invitation to join them.
"Oh, why stand on ceremony?" Alexis had exclaimed, smoothing down the skirts of her second-best spotted muslin. "For there can be no one there of any importance, to be sure, but I do not intend to stop enjoying myself, David!"
Indeed, she was now flirting quite shamelessly with Sir Roland's son, who despite his lineage was one of the few people in the room to whom the term 'attractive' could reasonably be applied. Perhaps she had decided that the promise of a future baronetcy and a house which actually had a roof was preferable to their current situation. Well, David thought, at least if Alexis had now decided to believe that rank was the best guide to future happiness in marriage, she had done so after that unfortunate summer in Greece with Lord Byron.
("Call me Georgie," indeed.)
Thankfully his station in one corner of Sir Roland's over-crowded, over-warm drawing room allowed David the solitude to observe what passed for the great and the good of S—— Creek, and the ability to think through the great question as to which of them would be an appropriate match for Stevie. Mrs Lee, of course, was already married, and Stevie would hardly thank him for nudging Mr Butani in her direction. Miss Sands was pretty, but she smiled too much; the same perhaps could be said for the town's vicar, Mr Mullens. Mrs Kurtz was widowed but too old, and Mr Kaplan had a pleasing smile but a too-plausible manner which David found suspicious.
Stevie herself was taking tea with a gentleman whom David did not know, but who caught his eye. This unknown gentleman spoke quietly, but there was a hint of mischief to the crook of his mouth which was surely the reason why Stevie—normally quite reticent in company—now often smiled and occasionally laughed. A leading question or two directed at Sir Roland's wife was enough to furnish David with a good deal of information about this intriguing individual.
Mr Patrick Brewer was about nine-and-twenty, with a comfortable estate which stood a mile or so to the north of S—— Creek. He was also, it seemed, in possession of the affections of every mother in the area.
"Such a good, steady sort of boy," Lady S—— said. "We all felt so sorry for him last year when Miss Morgan broke off their engagement so suddenly—quite the childhood sweethearts, you know, he seemed so utterly devoted to her—his heart very broken—but then I always say, if it's meant to be, it'll be!"
David faked laughter at that pearl of deathless wisdom, and resumed his observation of Mr Brewer. Everything about him, from the set of his shoulders to the cut of his coat and the quirk of his mouth, proclaimed him to be a sensible man of set and steady habits. Nothing that Lady S—— said of him marked him out as having the degree of wealth needed to move in the rarefied world of the ton, and his clothing showed that he had no aspirations to be in the kick of fashion. Yet he was clearly a gentleman, and one of good character, with the desire to marry and a recently broken heart—what could be more natural, than for the pretty Miss Budd to capture his eye and his hand? All that they would need was the gentlest of nudges.
Yes, David thought, nodding to himself, Patrick Brewer would suit the matter quite perfectly.
"It is only," David said plaintively to Alexis that night, "that I do not have much experience with matchmaking, at least where one partner does not have a clear thirty thousand pounds per year and the other a title and a moderately encumbered estate in ——shire."
"I remain unclear as to why you are telling me all this, David," Alexis said, "when I am clearly engaged in writing my diary."
"Oh, and this was truly a night worth memorialising?" David said, bundling the covers as closely around him as he could. It was difficult to remember the last time he'd had warm feet. "A night spent drinking tepid soup and listening to an out-of-tune harpsichord at Sir Roland's?"
"Well, I do beg your pardon," Alexis huffed, "but this is in fact a memento of a wonderful evening spent with a man with dazzling eyes who will surely address our parents any day now for formal permission to court me."
"Mmm," David said, in as noncommittal a tone as he could manage, for he found himself oddly reluctant to squash Alexis' enthusiasm, even if those eyes had seemed to him less dazzling and more hunted. "None of this helps me with my dilemma, you know."
"You might perhaps begin by asking Miss Budd her opinion," Alexis said. "Since she is the one whom all of this will concern."
Which was a ridiculous idea, and showed just how little Alexis knew about matchmaking.
Perhaps, though, it was not such a bad idea to get a sense of just where Stevie's preferences lay. Of course, over breakfast the next morning, she displayed a knack for taking each of David's questions in a way quite different to what he had intended. His idle musings as to the attractions of a pair of fine, dark eyes were ignored. His perfectly deft query as to when Stevie thought it an appropriate time to settle down was met by her with a raised eyebrow and the response that, "You'll forgive me for saying, I'm sure, but you are more than of an age to be married—and before the recent turn in your fortunes, at least, perfectly eligible. Shouldn't we be focusing on you?"
David scoffed and cracked open the top of his boiled egg. "To be eligible alone was never enough to induce me to marry. I must find the other person charming at the least—and then it is generally considered desirable for that other person to find me tolerable in return. So I am not now married, no, not even at the advanced age of five-and-thirty, and to own the truth I have very little idea of my ever marrying at all."
Stevie looked at him with something in her expression which David could not quite make out. "So you say; but I cannot believe it."
"It is true!" David said, loftily. Or at least, if not quite true, it was the best way for him to put a brave face on the matter—for if no one had ever truly wanted him when he was wealthy, who would take him as he was now? He pushed the thought to one side.
"Marriage without love seems so very tedious," he continued, "and I have never been in love. It is not my way or my nature. Perhaps it would be wise of me, to seek out a wealthy spouse, but I have decided that it is my fate to be an independent spirit—for bachelorhood cannot be risible if it is a deliberate choice, you know. Other people, however," and here David cast a significant eyebrow in Stevie's direction, "may choose to wed without it casting the least aspersion on their strength of character or independence of purpose, particularly when there are eligible partners in the locality."
"You are a very odd man," Stevie said after a pause, and steadfastly buttered a piece of bread.
S—— Creek was hardly a social hub. In fact, were David to be honest, he would be forced to describe it as something shocking. No house in the neighbourhood seemed to have so much as two drawing rooms, dinner was universally eaten at an entirely unfashionable hour, the rout-cakes were unpalatable and the card-parties had to make do without any ice. Everyone, in short, seemed a great deal behind-hand in knowledge of the world.
Yet there were still events enough for David to get the measure of Mr Brewer and decide that he would indeed be an eligible partner for Stevie. He had a sense of humour that was sly without being mean, a fierce determination that came across whether he was discussing politics or mending a pair of spectacles, and a steadiness to him that David found reassuring. In their occasional encounters in Mr Butani's lending library, Mr Brewer also showed the capacity to match David measure for measure in opinions about literature—even if, more than once, Mr Butani had had to ask them to stop distracting the library's other patrons.
Patrick Brewer, in short, was the kind of estimable man whom Stevie deserved. Surely the two wanted only to be thrown together a little more on social occasions, a little nudge given, and David would be able to congratulate himself for having helped to direct Cupid's arrow to the satisfaction of all concerned.
David therefore determined to host a supper, on the pretence of formally launching the Roses into S—— Creek society. It would be a small affair, candlelit to encourage intimacy and to hide the worst shabbiness of the Manor's dining room. Mr Brewer was the first on the list of those invited.
(This was all against the inclination of Mrs Rose, who still could not reconcile herself to the idea of entertaining company without having at least ten removes at the table, or a couple of émigrés in the drawing room to entertain the guests with tales of the dissipation of France as it used to be.
“Besides,” she wailed, “there is not a bit of fish to be had,” but the invitations had already been issued and accepted, and there it was.)
David looked forward to the evening with a kind of pleasure that he did not quite know how to categorise. Certainly the idea of even a small diversion from their usual routine was a welcome one, as was the idea of the triumph that would accrue to him when Stevie and Mr Brewer realised that they were meant for one another.
Yet there was something more to it, too. It was a small, hopeful kind of feeling, one that seemed to bloom steadily behind his breastbone as the event approached, and then all the faster as the evening progressed. David sat near Mr Brewer, hoping to give such little nudges as might induce him to look in Stevie's direction. And indeed, David thought he enjoyed some success there, for while Mr Brewer began the evening somewhat out of spirits—all grave looks and short questions—David soon managed to lead him on to talk in his more usual way.
That is to say, with a certain kind of sauciness which David could never predict, and which he enjoyed all the more for that—even when Mr Brewer was shockingly wrongheaded when it came to the works of Mrs Shelley.
"Well," Mr Brewer said, with their dinners going half-cold and half-uneaten in front of them, "perhaps we shall have to agree to disagree on the matter, since I do not wish to quarrel with you, and since you cannot recognise that you are in the wrong."
“Oh, I see,” David said dryly, “when we disagree it is always because I am in the wrong?”
“Yes, exactly,” Mr Brewer said with a smile, eyes bright.
“Ah,” David said, feeling himself grow unexpectedly animated, “because I have gained no advantage at all in judgement through being five years your senior, and having lived in the world, and conversed with authors, and, and... and having acquired many accomplishments in many areas?”
"Well, I think," Mr Brewer said, turning his head towards David, and David could not remember how their chairs had come to be so close to one another: how it was that Mr Brewer's shoulder almost brushed his. “I think that you lived in the world first as the spoiled child of wealthy parents and then as a handsome young man used to getting his own way, which may be why we disagree so very much.”
“Indeed?” David choked out, because it was the only thing he could think of to say that wasn’t you think me handsome?
“Mmm, yes,” Mr Brewer said, his voice now pitched low and confidential so that David had to lean in a little more to hear him properly. His breath hitched oddly. “But I think you have every chance of being right about some things—at least as they concern shared intentions.”
Before David could think of anything to say to that, the table dissolved into a general pleased hubbub at the appearance of dessert. Their tête-à-tête came to an end, and Mr Brewer's attention was forcibly claimed by Alexis, who demanded to know what he thought of Miss Sands' scheme to go strawberry picking.
David had rarely been so dissatisfied by the prospect of a cheese board.
In London, the evening would have been declared a bore; for no thrilling scandals occurred, no useful titbits of gossip were conveyed that could be hoarded to ensure later social advancement, and no dish was served that could have been thought more than moderately edible. Stevie was not a great cook, and although she enlisted the help of both David and his mother, neither had distinguished themselves in a culinary manner. But despite this, it was a quiet and conversable evening, both during the meal and when the party convened afterwards in the drawing room.
Mr Brewer talked more with David’s father than with David himself, or even with Stevie, but David could not find himself objecting too much. Not only did this provide Mr Rose with more opportunity to hold forth than he had enjoyed since they had come into the North Country, it gave David the chance of observation, something which he had not yet had his fill of when it came to Patrick Brewer.
(Purely, of course, in the interests of ascertaining that he truly was an eligible match for Stevie.)
Mr Brewer served as a local magistrate, which meant he had a ready supply of anecdotes as to the curious ways in which the inhabitants of S—— Creek chose to interpret His Majesty's laws. As the owner of Elmdale Abbey, too, he was clearly a careful steward of its home-farm, and spoke with quiet authority about the plan of a drain, the change of a fence, and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn for miles thereabouts. Mr Rose peppered him with questions about markets, and prices, and wages, and Mr Brewer seemed to have a thoughtful answer for each one.
David could not have identified a turnip in the wild had his life depended upon it, but there was something in Mr Brewer’s quiet competence that he found quite attractive—even though that competence was founded on root vegetables.
David did manage to get Stevie and Mr Brewer to sit together over a cup of tea later in the evening, and to contrive for them to be left entirely alone in a corner of the room while doing so. To be sure, they did not seem to be very much in love when David circled back some quarter of an hour later, but these things did take time.
And they did at least seem to find one another's company amusing, which was generally agreed on to be a tolerable first step by all the experts in such matters.
Throw them together a little more often, David thought, and Cupid's arrow was sure to strike.
"There is a shocking dearth of arrow-wielding cherubim in this town," David said. It was several days later and the weather had taken an unseasonable turn for the gloomy. Rain threatened, which boded ill for David's stockings. He wished to return to the Manor before the heavens opened, but Alexis insisted on dawdling her way through their morning constitutional and eyeing a bonnet in the haberdasher's window, no matter how much David abused it as ugly.
"Mmm," Alexis said, in that way of hers which said she was paying him no mind.
No matchmaking inspiration to be had there, nor indeed anywhere in this most bustling part of S—— Creek. David let his eye wander back up the street. He saw Sir Roland walking past with a newspaper under one arm and a head of cabbage under the other, a letter-boy letting himself in at the gate of the Mesdames Lee’s establishment, two dogs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of sticky-looking children eyeing the gingerbread in the baker’s shop window: these were all the diversions which the high street could bestow, even mid-morning. David looked down the street in the direction of Elmdale, and suddenly the scene enlarged: a person appeared. Mr Brewer. He spotted them and, raising his hat, crossed the street to greet them.
"Mr Rose, Miss Rose," he said. "I hope you are both well this morning."
"So well, I thank you," Alexis said, beaming at him. "And I trust that you"—she punctuated her words with a playful poke at his elbow—"are still thinking fondly of your evening with us? Or at least with certain members of our little party, hmm?"
David repressed a great sensation of irritation at this. Alexis had told him that she would help to nudge along his matchmaking scheme where she could, but he had forgotten just how incapable of subtlety she was. The goal was to help Mr Brewer and Stevie recognise their mutual tendre, not to force them into matrimony at the end of a sword.
Mr Brewer, however, did not seem angered. He certainly turned a little pink, and ducked his head, and looked at David from beneath his lashes, and said something about how he was very sensible of the hospitality of Mr and Mrs Rose's invitation, and that he hoped one day soon to be able to return the favour—David was a little too distracted by the glimpse he caught of the pale skin of Mr Brewer's inner wrist between sleeve and glove to be able to pay very close attention.
This was a definite tactical error, for by the time David had recovered his wits, not only had Alexis convinced Mr Brewer to walk with them as far as the gates of Rose Manor ("For on a morning like this, a turn about the town is so refreshing, don't you think?"), but she had browbeat him into hosting a ball at his home that day fortnight.
"There, you see?" Alexis said as they stood at the gate and watched Mr Brewer walk back towards the town, finally free to go about his own errands. "All you needed was a little of my touch, David, none of this shilly-shallying."
"I do not," David began and then, conscious that Mr Brewer was likely still in ear-shot, continued in a hiss, "shilly-shally."
"Oh, David," Alexis said pityingly, patting him on the arm.
The territory of S—— Creek proper and the grounds of Rose Manor itself were both but a sort of notch in the Elmdale Abbey estate, to which all the rest of the countryside thereabout belonged. David had known this intellectually, but it was of course one thing to be able to compare his imaginings of the house and its grounds with his particular observations. He had the chance to do so a few days later when he walked over there to give advice as to the preparations for the ball. Stevie had declared herself too busy to accompany him, and Alexis had abruptly declared her intention to help the vicar with something or other, which meant that David was by himself.
This allowed him to form his first impression of Elmdale Abbey in solitude, which was just as he liked it. The house was of that kind which must always be called venerable rather than fashionable or even handsome, but it was in a becoming situation, low and sheltered, its gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream and the whole surrounded by an abundance of old woodlands. It all seemed surpassingly peaceful, birds chattering overhead and the tree-lined walk pleasantly shaded. Mr Brewer greeted him warmly at the door, and was eager to show him around. The house itself was far larger than Rose Manor, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable rooms and one or two even decorated in a style which David could grudgingly grant was acceptable, if not actually correct.
The abbey's library was even a room in which David could imagine himself spending a good deal of time. The low chairs which flanked the fireplace looked both elegant and comfortable, the walls were painted a soothing shade of green, and the windows afforded an uninterrupted view out over the meadows. He said as much to Mr Brewer, who seemed very pleased by this observation, and who readily offered David the use of the library.
"I admit that the stock of books has not been much added to since my father's time," he added, "but I believe the collection reflects his good taste. You are more than welcome to come to Elmdale any time you wish to use it."
David thanked him, and then asked to see the room in which the ball proper was to be held. "I confess," he told Mr Brewer as he paced the length of it, to see how many couples could stand abreast, "that I am not entirely disinterested in organising this. I have never gone so long in my life without a ball or a masquerade or some little entertainment, so really this is just the thing. It has been months."
"Truly," Mr Brewer said gravely, "your suffering has been great."
David looked up from his inspection of the room's curtains, gratified that Mr Brewer appeared to be of one mind with him. "You understand me, then."
"Oh, certainly," Mr Brewer said, clasping his hands behind his back. "I'm sure that at some moment in history, there have been instances of people passing several months successively without dancing so much as a single gavotte with no subsequent injury to body or mind, but it cannot have been many."
David did not understand how someone could exasperate him so thoroughly and yet make him want to smile, almost against his will—but there it was.
The next few days passed in a whirl of activity which David could not but revel in. A menu was decided on, musicians were procured, and furniture arranged to allow for a better flow of people from one room to the next. Invitations were sent out and acceptances carefully catalogued. Mr Brewer acceded to every request David made of him with quiet alacrity—even when David wondered about the possibility of securing hot-house flowers from a town above twenty miles away.
David found an excuse to walk to and from Elmdale at least twice a day, journeys which were always punctuated by encounters with townsfolk who wished fervently for updates about the preparations. Mr Butani made suggestions as to which dances to play, Lady S—— recommended some party games which she assured David were very amusing, and Mr Mullens tentatively inquired which shade of tea roses Alexis preferred.
David had not felt so important, so necessary, since his family's forceful exile from London. In fact, he realised that he had not thought so very much of the city of late. Even when he sat down to write in his journal, or continued with his fledgling plans to impose some sort of order on the Manor's gardens, it was far more pleasant to him to imagine the thousand amusing schemes he could enter into here in S—— Creek—particularly when those schemes would encourage the progress of Stevie and Mr Brewer's attachment, and thus secure the happiness of two people whom David had come to think of as very dear friends.
And then, all at once, the evening of the ball arrived. Alexis lent Stevie one of her gowns to wear. Although the two women were not of a height, David had some facility with a needle and thread and worked to hem the garment while Alexis dressed Stevie's hair.
"For we must be sure to show you to every advantage," Alexis said, fingers working deftly to turn Stevie's hair into a modish mass of braids and curls, "when there may well be eligible individuals there, hmm?"
David might have taken a little more notice of the dubious expression on Stevie's face if not for the fact that she had a Rose sibling wielding needles and pins at either end of her body. In such circumstances, doubt was perhaps only to be expected.
They were just about to set out for the ball when there was a small commotion at the door. Mr Brewer, it seemed, had sent his carriage for them, knowing that otherwise they would have had to walk. His driver brought with him a note, which expressed the wish that this offer of his carriage would compensate for the poor state of the roads leading to Elmdale Abbey, and would save the ladies' shoes.
"Well, I call this very generous," Mr Rose said as he handed his wife up into the carriage. "Very gentlemanly, very handsome behaviour for Mr Brewer to be so solicitous of his neighbours. Wouldn't you agree, son?"
David did, especially since he knew that it hadn't rained for a number days and that the lanes between here and Elmdale were perfectly dry. Yet he could not think that Mr Brewer had been thinking of all of them in acting so.
No, David thought, observing Stevie sitting opposite him—a glow of happiness brightening her cheeks and animating her eyes—surely Mr Brewer had thought of one of them alone.
Everything in the great room at Elmdale was arranged just as David could have wished it. The mirrors on the walls gleamed in the glow of the chandeliers, flowers bloomed in abundance from every vase, the floor was appropriately chalked, and the musicians played softly to greet the guests as they arrived. Everyone smiled as they arrived, everyone full of compliments for Mr Brewer and Mr Rose for such an excellent set of arrangements, everyone delighted by the prospect of dancing and supper.
The only thing which David could not approve of was the fact that Mr Brewer did not dance—declared he had no intention of dancing—so young as he was! Surely he could only have appeared to advantage among the dancers, for though not tall he carried himself well. David had quite looked forward to it.
"I have nothing against it as an entertainment," Mr Brewer said when David protested, "but I confess I do not understand the pleasure some take in dancing, or in watching others dance. No, no, leave it to those with facility for it. I have two left feet."
David cajoled, but Mr Brewer was steadfast. Recognising his defeat, David retreated, choosing instead to make a circuit of the room and ensure that everything was in order. The musicians were in full flow. All in attendance seemed to be enjoying themselves, with Mr Butani now leading Mrs Lee to the top of the set, Mr and Mrs Rose following after. In one corner, Alexis was exerting all her powers of fascination on Mr Mullens, who had the kind of soft, slightly stunned look on his face which told David that another happy event might reasonably be expected before too long. He smiled to see it, and then smiled again to find himself so genuinely pleased at the thoughts of his sister settling down with a country vicar, when not so very long ago he would have thought of such a match as marrying down.
He had been slightly concerned about leaving the refreshments under the watch of Miss Sands, but even she seemed to have everything under control, with plenty of negus still to hand, while in the card room Mr Currie and Sir Roland were holding forth with aplomb and a good deal of port.
Everything spoke to David of a great success—a palpable triumph which introduced to the people of S—— Creek something of real elegance, real sophistication—and he thought with satisfaction that this night was sure to be the object of deep discussion for many nights to come in the homes roundabout.
It was only when he went back to the door of the ball room that David felt any kind of pang, for there was Stevie, standing by herself at the wall just as David had left her. She clutched an untouched glass of punch in her hands and, although she looked on wide-eyed at the dancing, it seemed that no one had yet asked her to stand up with them. David felt quite indignant—could no one else see that Stevie was quite one of the loveliest women in the room?
But just as David was beginning to resolve that he himself would ask her—for let no guest at a ball he helped organise enjoy anything other than a most gracious evening—he spotted Mr Brewer approach, make his bow, and lead Stevie to the set! David rocked back a little on his heels, all pleasure for Stevie's sake. She offered a kind of half-hearted protest, but it was clear she seemed glad to dance, and indeed David felt glad that despite his earlier declarations, Mr Brewer also acquitted himself well. Perhaps he was not the most elegant dancer. But he knew his steps, he paid attention to his partner, and when the dance allowed, was diligent about talking with Stevie and making her laugh.
They made a very handsome couple, David told himself, a sensible and eligible match of the kind that would have drawn approving glances from the society mamas back in Almack's. He nodded to himself. Yes, very much so. This was an accomplishment indeed. He tried to put himself in mind of what he would have felt back in his old life on adding such a string to his bow—and yet, to own the truth, he felt less happy than he had expected to on the cusp of such success. He knew rather than felt himself to be content. For the rest of the evening, he laughed despite feeling obscurely disappointed, and talked because he would rather not think, and tried his very best not to look in Mr Brewer's direction.
The evening finally came to an end, as all such evenings do. The white soup and the negus and the punch were drunk up, the chalk patterns were worn from the floor by so many dancing feet, the last sixpence had been won at cards, and the last wraps retrieved from the care of Mr Brewer's servants. People made their goodbyes with a tired goodwill and carriages rumbled off down the drive, their lanterns winking in the darkness, until at length only the Roses and Stevie remained. They were waiting on Mr Brewer's carriage to return, for he had insisted on using it to convey the Mesdames Lee home rather than let them walk at such an hour.
Mr and Mrs Rose waited in one of the drawing rooms, both of them exhausted after the long evening and, in Mrs Rose's case, what she referred to as just a soupçon too much punch. Alexis sat with them, declaring her feet pinched beyond belief by her dancing slippers—though she had, David noted, expressed no such qualms when dancing with the handsome vicar.
That left David and Stevie to wait in the vestibule. The space was blessedly cool and quiet save for the occasional passage of some of the servants back and forth as they set the house back to rights.
"Well," David said, fussing with the folds of Stevie's shawl until it lay around her shoulders to best advantage. "I would call that a very successful evening, wouldn't you?"
"It was very pleasant," Stevie said, her eyes bright. She'd been humming one of the jauntier airs under her breath.
"And of course I'm sure we'll have many such nights here in the future," David continued.
"I think you would have to secure Mr Brewer's permission first," Stevie said wryly.
"Why would I need that?" David said, shaking his head. "Mrs Brewer shall surely have all the influence in the matter."
"Mrs Brewer?" Stevie looked at him with a quizzical expression. "And who might that be?"
"Oh come, there's no need for false modesty! You must know that I have every intention of his marrying you!" David exclaimed. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he called tomorrow to declare his intentions. His dancing with you was a very good sign, you know, and you are in very good looks this evening. I must say this has been one of my more successful schemes."
As he spoke, Stevie's expression had shifted from quizzical, to surprised, and now something closer to real distress. She was, David realised, looking past him, and he turned to find that Mr Brewer was standing in one of the doorways. He was at the best of times a pale man, but now he was positively ashen. He clutched at the doorknob in his hand as if it were the only thing keeping him upright.
"I beg your pardon," Mr Brewer said, very quietly.
"Oh," David said, feeling all the awkwardness of the moment. "I thought we were alone, I didn't think—"
"You mistake me, sir." With that, Mr Brewer turned and walked away, stiff-backed.
"You didn't think? That much is very obvious," Stevie snapped. David turned again to find that her eyes blazed now with anger. "What on earth have you been about?"
David felt very confused. "Well, it would be a very good match, you know. You are pretty and lively and would help to mend Mr Brewer's broken heart, which everyone has told me about, and he can offer you respectability and stability and the kind of connexions which would never otherwise be afforded to someone of—"
"David." Stevie's tone of cold fury made him stop, confused.
"If you wish to retain any claims to my friendship," Stevie continued, voice trembling, "you will not finish that sentence."
Their raised voices roused the others, who emerged into the vestibule in a clamour of questions—was not the carriage yet returned? Could anyone else remember the last time they had stayed up so late? Amid the tumult, Stevie and David maintained a steadfast silence. David handed the others into the carriage, and then declared that he himself would walk home—it was a fine, clear night and the exercise would do him good. His parents did not seem to notice that anything was amiss, Stevie refused to so much as look at him, and Alexis at least had the good sense for once to realise that no good would come from causing a scene.
The carriage set off and David followed slowly in its wake. His lone walk allowed him to think and be miserable. This was a wretched business indeed! Such an overthrow of everything he had been thinking these past weeks, in a way which brought with it nothing but pain and humiliation—and of a kind which made him acutely aware of having caused such to others. He had thought that Mr Brewer and Stevie would make a good couple, but now it was clear that there were no secret passions there—and that he had missed something terribly important.
What had Mr Brewer meant, by saying that David mistook him?
Halfway home, the carriage passed him on its return journey to Elmdale. By the time David let himself into Rose Manor, the whole house was dark and still, everyone already abed. He crept up the stairs and let himself into the bedroom as quietly as he could. He had pulled on his nightshirt and was just creeping between the covers when Alexis spoke up.
David could not help his instinctive little shriek of alarm, having thought her asleep, but his sister spoke on regardless. Her words, though muffled by sleep and by the coverlet which she had pulled up almost over her head, were still perfectly comprehensible.
"So I don't know precisely what you said to Stevie, but I know enough to understand that you owe her a very sincere and really quite grovelling apology."
"And." One of Alexis' fingers shot out from beneath the coverlet in emphatic punctuation. Was David never to be allowed to finish a sentence this evening? "You owe one to Mr Brewer, as well, for apparently having entirely failed to recognise that that sweet little button of a man has been very obviously trying to court you these past several weeks."
David's jaw dropped.
"Ugh. Good night, David," Alexis said. She turned over in her bed and seemed to fall swiftly asleep. It was many hours, however, before David was able to follow her.
David passed a miserable night, and the morning which followed was hardly much better. When he finally dragged himself downstairs for breakfast, his parents and Alexis fell silent as soon as he entered the room. The tea, toast, and boiled eggs waiting at his place setting were uniformly cold, and there was no sign of Stevie.
"Cheer up, dear," his mother said, reaching across the table to pat his hand. "As I once said to Caroline of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, this is sure to be nothing more than some unsettled meteorological phenomena easily contained within fine bone china. In her case I was very wrong, of course, but I'm sure this will soon pass."
That Mrs Rose had noticed that something was amiss with Stevie was the surest sign indeed that David had made a grave error.
He choked down his cold breakfast past the decided lump in his throat, and then went in search of Stevie. She was neither in the kitchen, nor the pantry, nor the abandoned billiard room, nor in the gardens. The only place left to look was her bedroom—but David was, contrary to popular opinion, capable of understanding some signs and portents. With a sigh, he retrieved his hat and his gloves and his gardening tools, went outside, and set himself to weeding with a will.
The morning passed, the sun climbed high in the sky, and David found that he had filled a whole basket with weeds and clippings almost without noticing. He sat back on his heels and wiped an arm across his brow. His concentration had been all on the whirl of his thoughts: now guilty, now sad, now defiant, now repentant. David couldn't remember ever having been so conscious in his life of having done wrong. He was not a fan of the sensation.
"I'm not sure that rose bush will soon forgive you," came a voice from behind him.
David turned to find her standing behind him, hands clasped and mouth set. He was sure she had not forgiven him; she looked unlike herself. He stood in turn, tugging the gloves from his hands and brushing the dirt from his knees. "I… I looked for you earlier, to apologise, but I couldn't find you."
"Hmm." Stevie looked past him, to where a crumbling wall separated the garden from what had once been an orchard but was now an overgrown thicket. "Do you even know what you would be apologising for?"
"Well," David said tentatively, "you are likely not very amenable to the idea of marrying Mr Brewer?"
"And?" Stevie said sternly.
"Mr Brewer is likewise not very amenable to the idea of marrying you? And I should not have tried to matchmake without ascertaining first whether there were strong feelings on either side." To this, David mentally acknowledged, but did not voice, the fact that he had jumped very sharply to a particular kind of conclusion about Mr Brewer, based on what Lady S—— had told David about his romantic history—as if one bout of heartbreak over a woman proved anything as to whether a man nurtured Uranian tendencies.
"And?" Stevie folded her arms and looked directly at him for the first time which was not, David realised, very much of an improvement. He toyed with the fingers of his gloves.
"And perhaps I was just a tad presumptuous in how I went about things," David said, wincing.
"Do you know," Stevie said in a steady, terrible kind of voice, "how many times over the years I have been treated as if my descent were some kind of guilt? Told that I should not hope for too much, as the natural daughter of someone whose true connexion to S—— Creek is unknown? And when I met you, I thought for the first time, here is someone who doesn't care that I was a foundling, and has no particular theories as to whose by-blow I might be. Here is someone who simply wishes to, to be my friend."
Something twisted and curdled in the pit of David's belly. "I am your friend!" he cried. "That is why I wished to see you secure and happy with someone who could appreciate your excellent qualities!"
"Perhaps," Stevie said. Her eyes brimmed over with tears. "Or perhaps you thought that Mr Brewer was someone who could offer me respectability and stability in spite of myself."
"Oh," David said. He hadn't thought that at all—or had he? He bit his lip. David recalled what he had said, or intended to say: respectability and stability and the kind of connexions which would never otherwise be afforded to someone of your birth. In his old life, he would certainly have said that and thought nothing of it—would, if anything, have thought he was being entirely benevolent in recognising the good fortune of someone whose marriage would elevate them into the right circles.
Only David no longer moved in the right circles, and his time in S—— Creek had shown him that it was entirely possible to live a happy life without moving in those circles, or with any desire for social elevation at all. Perhaps there were no right circles. Perhaps it was even possible to live a life in a manner that would constitute his happiness, without reference to the opinion of those to whom he no longer maintained any connections or felt any affection.
"I was wrong," he said, drawing himself up to his full height. "Entirely wrong, in what I did and in why I did it. I offer you my full and unreserved apology, Stevie Budd."
Stevie dashed a tear from her cheek. "Your meals will be burned for at least a week."
That would hardly be any different from the current situation, but it didn't seem politic for David to mention that just now. "Entirely fair."
"You will help me to clear out the far attic."
"Fine," David said. He would just have to wear his gardening hat to guard against cobwebs.
"And the carpets in the drawing rooms need to be beaten while the weather still holds."
"I—" David swallowed back the instinctive protest. Stevie was his friend, and after all, he'd heard that a little mortification was good for the soul. "As you wish."
David did not undertake his anticipated, triumphant strolls through S—— Creek in the aftermath of the ball.
He kept largely to the Manor and its grounds, for even though he did not think his disgrace was common knowledge, he could not stomach the idea of presenting a bright and superior façade to the townsfolk. Stevie had more than enough work for him to do, and besides David found that there was a kind of satisfaction to be had in carrying it out. A surprising satisfaction, but satisfaction nonetheless.
And a satisfaction that was all the greater because the work had a true purpose behind it. It seemed that Stevie had long and quietly mapped out a plan for bringing Rose Manor back to life, fixing what was broken and returning its orchards and farmyards to proper working order. Even if they did not as yet have the resources to repair the leaking roof or the sagging floor in the Green Bedroom, there was much that was in their present power to accomplish.
It was hard work, and David found that there were few parts of his body which did not ache at the end of each day. Yet that exhaustion at least allowed him to fall asleep, and to sleep heavily and dreamlessly. That was a welcome respite from the day's thinking—for with his hands occupied, and few people around to distract him, David found that he had more time than ever to think.
In his mind, over the course of several days, David turned over every interaction he had had with Mr Brewer. Everything now seemed cast in a different light, right from the first time David had seen him. There had been something about Mr Brewer that had caught him—his attention and curiosity both. Perhaps at first it had come down to novelty. After all, in London one might meet hundreds who were termed gentlemen by reason of birth and wealth and the possession of a refined address, but David did not know if there was one in a hundred there who suited the word so genuinely well as did Patrick Brewer.
Yet David could now own to himself that even if at first Mr Brewer had drawn his interest by reason of novelty, that had very quickly been replaced by something else. Once he allowed himself to entertain the suspicion, it didn't take long for him to realise—to admit—the truth that he had indeed long been attracted to Mr Brewer. Why else had it given him such a pang, to see Mr Brewer stand up with Stevie at the ball?
Because, David knew now, that he wanted Mr Brewer to dance with no one but himself.
He found himself standing, stock-still and bewildered, in front of a half-beaten carpet dangling from the branch of a tree. It was, he realised, right there in the garden, quite possible that he was in fact in love with Mr Brewer. Every moment now seemed to bring with it a new surprise—a memory of a look of Mr Brewer’s, a tilt of his head, or a particular tone in his voice. David did not know how to understand the deception he had practiced on himself, to have seen all of this and yet somehow never realised the workings of his own heart.
He must—he must do something, David realised. Today, beginning from this very moment. He must apologise, must declare himself, must let Mr Brewer know—even if there was no longer any hope that Mr Brewer would return those sentiments.
David turned to head back into the house and found Mr Brewer standing right behind him. He gasped and clutched the carpet beater to his chest.
"I... Forgive me, I didn't mean to intrude. Your sister told me I could find you in the garden," Mr Brewer said. Either the heat of the day, or some other cause, had brought a wash of colour to his face.
"You, you do not intrude, sir," David said. He was acutely aware of the fact that he was in but his shirt sleeves, and that the exertion of the work had caused his hair to tumble about his face. He tried to brush it back with one hand and to hide the carpet beater behind his back with the other. "That is, good morning. I—"
"I came to—"
"I was just on my way to—"
"And I wished to—"
"I owe you the deepest—"
"I simply wished to say something," Mr Brewer said, sounding as close to frustrated as David had ever heard him. "Something very particular, which I have wanted to say for some time now. If you do not wish to hear me out, I will understand of course."
“No, I—” David steeled himself, putting back his shoulders although he knew well he looked ridiculous, with his dirt-streaked forearms on display. It would be ungracious of him not to hear what Mr Brewer had to say, and surely he had earned whatever chiding Mr Brewer had come to bestow on him. “If you have any wish to speak openly to me as… as a friend, or to… well. I shall gladly hear whatever you have to say to me.”
“As a friend—!” Mr Brewer let out a choked laugh. “I fear that is a word which… no. I cannot do it. I can neither hope nor wish for further concealment. Mr Rose—David—tell me, have I no chance of ever succeeding? I am not a man for speeches, but you know what I am. I do not think I will ever be able to love you less than I do now, but if you say yes, I think I could spend a lifetime learning to love you all the more.”
David scarcely knew what to think. This was far beyond what he had hoped, or had ever experienced before. True, people had proclaimed their attachment to David on many occasions; on rather more occasions, perhaps, than strict propriety would have allowed for. But he had never put much store in their professions or their proposals. They were people who had desired to make a good match, and had pretended to be in love, but had never given a hint of true affection either in their language or their manners. They had never sought to secure the affections of David, but rather to secure the hand of Mr Rose of Mayfair, the future heir of twelve thousand pounds per annum.
He had never known someone who looked at him like this, dark eyes full of hope.
The ensuing half hour gave David something he had never had before: the precious certainty of being beloved. By the time they returned into the house, Mr Brewer was David’s own Patrick, by hand and by word and by the hot, fierce press of his mouth.
News of the engagement of David Rose and Patrick Brewer soon spread among the good people of S—— Creek, and it formed the evening gossip of many a family circle. In general it was a very well approved match, though it must be owned that the majority thought Mr Rose the one most in luck. For Mrs Rose, the communication was at first a considerable shock. It was not that she disapproved of Patrick so much as that she had paid so little attention to events around her that Patrick's name was still somewhat unfamiliar to her; she reminded David, more than once, of his firm declarations of having always said he would never marry, and assured him that it would be a great deal better for him to remain single; and seemed never to hear David reminding her that his most steadfast avowals of bachelorhood had been made at the age of ten.
Local gossips marvelled at how the wedding was very much like other weddings—hands clasped, vows said, a tender kiss exchanged—despite Mr Rose’s well-known London tastes. In fact, there was far less white satin and lace in evidence than most had predicted, and one critical observer indeed was moved to term it “a most pitiful business!”
But in spite of this, the wishes, the hopes, and the confidence of David and Patrick and all their family who gathered around them were gratified by the perfect happiness of the husbands' union.