Christmas Story: Part Ten - A Romantic Interlude
Emma's wits were unceremoniously retstored to her, thanks to a hand vigorously waving hartshorn beneath her nose. She pushed it aside and Bessy's concerned features swan into view.
'Ah, Miss Carstairs, I rejoice to see that you are recovering from your ordeal.'
'Where are I?' she mumbled incoherently.
'We thought it best to remove you to the small sitting room. You will be able to recover here without fear of interruption.'
Emma, initially unable to recall quite what had happened to her, became acutely embarrassed when the particulars slowly filtered into her addled brain. She never fainted. 'I crave your pardon, Bessy. I have been a great trial to you since arriving at Wintersmede Hall and you must surely now regret having invited me.'
'Not at all. It was very hot in the ballroom and I dare say you are not accustomed to such a crush of people.'
Emma would have liked to take refuge behind such a convenient lie but could not do so. Bessy had been kindness itself and she deserved to know the truth.
'I fear,' she admitted with a rueful shrug, 'that it was shock rather than the heat that caused me to lose my senses.'
'My dear Miss Carstairs!' cried Bessy, her hand flying to cover her face in obvious alarm. 'Whoever can have overset you so? Supply me with a name and I will have Charles rectify the situation immediately.'
'Pray do not distress yourself, Bessy; my overactive imagination is very likely the only culprit.' Emma swallowed, appreciating how ridiculous her next words would likely sound to her hostess. 'Although perhaps I was temporarily overcome by heat exhaustion after all,' she reasoned, 'since I was seeing double.' She forced herself into a sitting position, waited for the room to stop spinning and held Bessy's gaze. 'You see, I was convinced that I could see two of Mr Ellis.' Bessy's only response was a hearty bout of laughter. 'I am glad you find the situation diverting,' said Emma huffily.
'Pray excuse me, Miss Carstairs,' said Bessy when she managed to regain control of herself, 'but I am not laughting at you; I am merely relieved to discover that you have not been afflicted with a serious malady.' Bessy covered Emma's hand with her own. 'You were not seeing double; you merely saw Mr Ellis and his younger brother Giles standing side by side.'
Emma was aware that her mouth had fallen open and that she was gaping like a simpleton. Indeed, it was such an obvious explanation that she must be soft in the head not to have thought of it herself. A slow smile spread across her face as relief flooded through her. It was obviously Giles that Leticia was engaged to. Her Mr Ellis was the honourable gentleman she had taken him for all along and had not misled her - at least not in that respect.
'His brother,' she echoed faintly.
'Indeed. Giles is just one year his brother's junior but they are so much alike that they are often mistaken for twins.'
'I can quite understand why.'
'But, Miss Carstairs, since you appear to be recovering your wits I must confide in you the most delightful secret. It is Giles that our friend Leticia has become engaged to and the announcement is to be made here this very evening. I am so delighted for her! Leticia does not possess a great fortune, it is true, but even though Giles is a younger son he has independent means and is able to follow his heart when it comes to selecting a wife.' Bessy paused, studying Emma's countenance closely before adding, with a significant smile, 'as is his brother.'
'It will be a most advantageous match for Leticia,' agreed Emma, pretending not to understand Bessy's final pointed comment.
'Oh, absolutely,' said Bessy, her eyes sparkling with mischief, 'and I trust that you, Letecia and I will find the time over the next few days to renew our friendship and talk of Leticia's forthcoming nuptials. Goodness only knows, I have had precious little opportunity to have you to myself since your arrival: a situation for which I hold Mr Ellis entirely accountable.'
Emma was furious when she felt her cheeks flood with colour. Not five years ago it would have been Bessy blushing guiltily when Emma caught her out in some prank or other at school but now the tables had been neatly turned. 'Mr Ellis is an amiable gentleman and has very elegant manners,' she muttered feebly.
'Ah, that would explain it then,' said Bessy, laughing openly now. 'Charles and I had been wondering why our neighbour was spending so much of his time with you. We could not figure it out at all but as always, dear Miss Carstairs, you have got to the root of the matter. He is squiring you all over the estate simply because he is well-mannered.' Bessy sat back, clearly well pleased with herself, laughter still in her eyes.
'I cannot think of any other reason why he should go to so much trouble,' snapped Emma, more acerbically than she had intended.
'Can you not? Oh, Miss Carstairs, do not be such a goose. I have never seen my husband's friend so enamoured of any lady before and, goodness only knows, enough have tried all manner of stratagems to attract his attention.'
'Mr Ellis has a great deal of responsibility resting upon his shoulders, unless I mistake the matter.'
'You are in the right of it. As heir to his father's considerable estate he has already assumed many duties in that respect.'
'Well, there you are then.'
Bessy moved closer to Emma and took her hand. 'It feels extraordinary that I should now be offering you advice, Miss Carstairs, but if I were in your position I would do everything in my power to encourage Mr Ellis's advances; if you welcome them, of course.'
'I cannot deny that I am flattered by his attentions,' said Emma, giving up all pretence at indifference, 'but surely you can see the impossibility of it all?'
'I cannot see any such thing,' protested Bessy stoutly. 'Mr Ellis is a gentleman who can afford the luxury of pleasing himself when it coems to choosing a bride and if you are his heart's desire, where is the difficulty?'
Emma, aware that Bessy was the possessor of a soft heart and romantic nature, did not argue the point. But she knew that whilst a younger son might be given some licence, the heir would be expected to marry within his own class. She had been introduced to his father just before she disgraced herself by fainting and although he gave every appearance of being an affable gentleman she thought she could detected a glint of steely determination in his eye and knew that his first born son would not be permitted to settle for a mere school teacher. That being so, it would be inadvisable to get carried away with fancy notions and if Mr Ellis was unable to see the impracticality of it all then she must somehow draw on her inner strength and discourage further intimacies between them. Resolved, Emma permitted herself one small sigh of regret and returned her attention to Bessy, who was again speaking.
'Leticia is still a close neighbour of Lucy Grassmore,' she said, 'and when Lucy heard that Leticia would be meeting you again she entrusted her with a letter for you.' Bessy waved the document in question beneath Emma's nose. 'Now,' she continued, rising to her feet, 'I have neglected my guests for too long and will leave you to complete your recovery and enjoy your correspondence in solitude.' She turned in the open doorway and looked back at Emma. 'But, I must beg you to reflect upon our discourse since I would not, for the world, see you waste such an opportunity.' He voice gentled. 'No, do not say anything, ma'am. I was in the same position as you not so long ago and comprehend your feelings perfectly.'
'But you do not -'
'And pray remember that if you do not wish to receive Mr Ellis's attentions there are many others who will happily take your place. Miss Marshall is very pretty,' added Bessy artfully, 'and does not hesitate to flatter him when you are absent from a room and she is able to engage his attention.'
With a saucy smile and flurry of skirts Bessy left the room, chuckling softly, presumably at the possessive expression that invaded Emma's face.
Refusing to dwell upon their conversation Emma opened her letter, delighted to have heard from one of her favourite and most intellectually gifted ex-pupils. But her delight was short-lived. She got past Lucy's opening paragraph of seasional greetings and knew immediately that something was seriously amiss.
'Oh dear!' She clasped her hand to her face as she read between the lines and realised that Lucy was putting a brave face on a dire situation.
'Miss Carstairs, are you still unwell?' Emma was acutely aware of the large hand that came to rest on the small of her back, heating the skin beneath her flimsy gown and causing the flush to return to her cheeks. 'Pray be seated and tell me what I can do to make your more comfortable.'
Emma, dazed by Lucy's news yet angered by her reaction to the mere touch of Mr Ellis's hand, allowed herself to be guided to the chair she had just vacated. She had not heard him enter the room but somehow was not surprised that he should intuitively appear at her side at a time when she was badly in need of comfort and solace.
'I am perfectly recovered, Mr Ellis. It is just that I have received some rather distressing news from one of my former pupils.'
'I am sorry to hear that, Miss Carstairs,' he said, seating himself beside her. 'It is, I am persuaded, a testament to your dedication that so many of your pupils hold you in esteem, maintaining correspondence with you long after they quit your establishment. But I must own that if they do so merely to distress you then I would prefer that their pens remained idle.'
'Lucy did not intend to overset me,' she responded vigorously. 'Indeed, her missive is cheerful and informative and were it not for the fact that I know her so well I might be duped into believing the downturn in her fortunes is of no great consequence.'
'But you do not take that view?'
'Indeed not.' Emma straightened a spine that was already rigidly upright and met Mr Ellis's kindly eye with equanimity. 'Lucy possesses a lively, enquiring mind and is quite the most intelligent girl it has been my good fortune to instruct.'
'A remarkable young lady then.'
'She is indeed. Her uncle was her guardian but he passed away three months ago.'
'I am sorry to hear that.'
'As was I at the time but it at least afforded Lucy the opportunity to postpone entering into an engagement with the gentleman her uncle has selected for her. He was, by all accounts, ill-educated and quite wrong for Lucy in every respect.'
'Not at all the kind to react favourably towards a well read wife.'
'Precisely! It does me no credit to confess that I was relieved her uncle's death intruded upon the negotiations for her betrothal. No agreement had been formally reached and the gentleman could not, in all honour, press Lucy's cousin, who has inherited her uncle's estate, whilst he was still in mourning.'
'But something of that nature has now occurred?' suggested Mr Ellis gently, his eyes levelled upon hers, full of compassion and understanding. Emma, who had little experience of such matters, would have supposed most of the opposite sex to consider her concerns for a former pupil to be of little import. Mr Ellis clearly did not fall into that category, causing Emma's regrets in respect of her determination to repulse his advances to multiply.
'Yes, Lucy's cousin does not wish her to continue living beneath his roof. His wife objects to her presence and she has been told that she must either accept the gentleman who is still petitioning for both her hand and the substantial dowry which her cousin will provide her with, or leave his house penniless and make her own way in the world.'
'What a bounder to put the poor bereaved girl in such a position!' cried Mr Ellis passionately. 'I would wager that your Lucy does not intend to be browbeaten however and intends to follow the latter course.'
'Indeed, yes,' concerred Emma with asperity. 'How typical of her: I so applaud her strength of character. She asks if I know of anyone who might be prepared to employ her as a governess. She would indeed set a most admirable example to any children fortunate enough to be placed under her care.
'Or fill a vacancy for a teacher in a school, perhaps?'
'Yes, that too. Now, who do I know that might -'
'In your school, perhaps?'
'Alas, there are no vacancies.'
'Not at the present time perhaps.' The opening stanza of a waltz echoed from the ballroom beneath them, filling the small room with its infectious melody. 'Ah, Miss Carstairs, I am reminded of my reason for seeking you out. Will you honour me with the first waltz of the evening?' He held out his hand expectantly.
'Thank you, sir, but I do not intend to return to the ballroom at this juncture.'
'Then dance with me here, Emma,' he whispered persuasively, 'where we can be alone.'
Something stronger than her own will drew Emma towards him, even as she shook her head to decline his offer. Walking into his open arms she fell into step with him, not surprised to discover that he danced superbly. She was acutely aware of the solidity of his body, mere inches away from hers; of the steely muscles in his arms holding her in their protective embrace, pulling her imperceptibly closer as they twirled round the room until the distance that had originally separated them became non-existent.
This was scandalous! His thighs pushed relentlessly against her skirts as he led her in the dance, the pressure from the arm circling her waist increased and his eyes did not once leave her face. Blushing furiously Emma could not suppress the warm glow which suffused her entire body as her eyes courageously clashed with his. The sincerity in his expression stole away what little breath she had remaining and she did not know if she was relieved or disappointed when the music stopped far sooner than she would have deemed possible.
He did not release her and Emma made no effort to move away from him. Instead she stood passively in the circle of his arms, wondering what would happen next, all too aware that his eyes were burning bright with fiery passion. And desire. Emma had little experience in such matters but she recognised desire when she saw it, possibly because his expression was a mirrir image of her own. His lips descended towards hers, slowly and yet with such determination and authority that she was powerless to resist. Just this once she would allow herself to luxuriate in his embrace, and then she would never permit herself to be alone with him again. With a gentle sigh she melted against the solidity of his chest and parted her lips, brazenly inviting him to claim them.
Emma was consumed by a maelstrom of dizzying emotions as he did so: senstations chased one another through her body at a breakneck pace, each more intense than its predecessor. So this was passion: at last Emma understood. But she was also aware that she should not have permitted this situation to develop; what must he think of her? Determined to extricate herself with her dignity intact Emma used every last vestige of her self-control to pull out of his arms and turn away from him.
'Mr Ellis, pray excuse me.'
She stepped towards the door but his hand on her arm prevented her from opening it.
'Emma, don't go; we must talk.'
'We have nothing to discuss, sir.'
'You are quite wrong.' He placed his capable hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. 'We were talking of Miss Grassmoor and her suitability as a teacher in your establishment.'
'And I have already told you that we have our full compliment of teachers.'
'At the moment, perhaps.' He gently traced the line of her cheek with his forefinger. Emma reacted to his gossamer light touch all the way to her toes but pulled her face out of his grasp, anxious that her expression should not betray her feelings. 'But what will happen when you give up your position there?'
'I have no intention of giving up my position.'
'Oh, Emma.' Ignoring her protests he pulled her back into his arms. 'We have only known one another for a few days, it is true, but never before have I felt so passionately drawn towards a lady. And I believe you feel it too.'
She turned her face into his chest, determined that her treacherous eyes should not give her away, but feeling his responding chuckle rumbling deep in his chest she knew she hadn't deceived him.
'No, sir,' she said, lifting her chin as she stuggled to regain her dignity, 'you quite mistake the matter.'
'Do I?' He quirked a brow, his expression quite shockingly assured. 'You must permit me to tell you -'
The door burst open and they sprang apart like the guilty lovers they had almost become, but not quickly enough. The formidible figure that filled the doorway bore no resemblence to the amiable gentleman Emma had been introduced to not an hour previously. With a slight inclination of his head in her direction Mr Ellis's father turned a thunderous expression upon his son and demanded a private word with him. Immediately.
To be continued ........