This holiday short story first appeared on Ramblings From This Chick blog spot.
A Wallflower Blooming on Christmas Eve
arianna lifted her hands, signaling the Richmond Orphanage choir to begin singing Coventry Carol for the guests at Lady Haverford’s famed Christmas Eve ball. She had attended the ball for the last five years, but this was the first one that she truly enjoyed. On previous Christmas Eves, she would dress meticulously, certain that the wrong necklace or ill-suited shade of fabric was the reason no gentleman had asked her to dance the previous year. But alas, her finest gowns and jewelry just decorated Lady Haverford’s walls as the other ladies whirled on the dance floor.
But last year something changed. Coming home from the ball in the wee hours of Christmas morning, she was feeling sorry herself for not dancing a single dance and berating herself for being too shy around gentlemen. Across the carriage, her disappointed parents, draped in warmed wool blankets, had drifted off to sleep. Marianna gazed out the frigid glass window. Outside, under a gas lamp, a filthy child, not even four, was huddled. The girl yanked at the torn hem of her outgrown, thread-bare cotton dress, trying to cover her tiny exposed feet.
Marianna’s heart clenched. Someone ought to help these children, she thought. Some charity or government office. Yet, as carriage rambled down the block, the knots in her gut tightened with each yard separating her and the child, until she couldn’t bear it another second. Without thinking, she tapped on the roof, signaling the carriage to stop. Then she leaped down. Her cloak flew behind her as she scrambled down the walk.
“Come,” she had told the child, holding out her gloved hand. “We have a warm bed and food.”
The child studied her, not moving, as if she didn’t understand Marianna’s words.
“Let me help you,” Marianna said.
Slowly the girl slipped her ice-cold, tiny hand in Marianna’s. Terror tore through Marianna, as the reality of the situation set in. What was she doing? She didn’t know how to take care of a child. Still, the girl held tight to Marianna, her eyes large and scared in her thin face. Marianna led her back to the carriage, surprising her parents.
“Take it to an orphanage,” her father had barked, as if the child were a stray animal.
The day after Christmas, Marianna and the young child named Emma, had set out in search of an orphanage. One institution didn’t even bother to open their doors to them, two were so dirty and crowded that Marianna couldn’t let Emma stay, and a fourth said they had no room. As the afternoon sun was sinking in the sky, Marianna ambled up to modest building on Oxford Street. The brass placard read Richmond Home and School for Girls and Boys. Although her hopes were fading, Marianna pulled the bell. The door creaked open, and a lady, about the same age as Marianna, gazed down. Warmth from the hall wafted out onto the steps.
“What a lovely child,” the woman had exclaimed. “Do come in. We are setting the tables for tea.”
Since that day, Marianna had returned to Richmond twice a week, volunteering to teach languages and music, or help sew clothes. Anything the orphanage required. She even convinced Lady Haverford to allow the Richmond Choir to perform at her Christmas Eve ball.
Now she led the choir as it sang, “Lullay, thou little tiny child. By, by, lully, lullay.” Their high soprano voices echoed in the room. Emma managed to behave until the last verse when she decided to sing her own version and spin about like a ballerina. The guests laughed and exclamations of “how precious” or “just dorable” rippled through the room. When the last note made the famous turn from the sorrowful minor to a hopeful major and died away, Marianna smiled at her choir. Her heart was full of love for their beautiful work. She picked up tiny Emma, and, holding her on her hip, Marianna launched into her prepared speech. “The Richmond Orphanage needs your support to—“
“Lord Searle!” Emma squealed and clapped her hands.
The sounds of low chatter, swishing fans, and scraping feet ceased. All heads turned to a pale-faced man with ill-kempt dark hair and light gray eyes with deep purple crescents beneath. A smile curled his lips. Marianna sucked her breath. This was Lord Searle. She had seen him before in the bookstores and tea shops along Oxford Street. She had exchanged smiles, even given him a polite good morning on occasion, never knowing that he was the notorious fallen angel of London society. The man so debauched that uttering his name was considered profane in polite circles.
Emma continued to clap calling, unaware of the rising tension. “Lord Searle is here! Lord Searle is here!” The man’s smile faltered, his gaze began to dart back and forth between the cold, disapproving faces of the guests. He backed away, then spun and broke into a jog as he passed through the double doors leading to the entrance hall.
The room remained dead silent for several long seconds.
Marianna tried to dive back into her speech, but all the words had fled her mind. She stood, planted, staring at the spot Lord Searle had vacated, and saying “Umm…Umm” until Lady Haverford stepped in front of her, taking control of her ball again.
“Thank you, Miss Marianna and the Richmond Orphanage for this lovely little interlude. Now I’m in the mood to dance as I’m sure my young guests are.” She clapped her hands twice, beckoning to the chamber musicians. “Let us start with old fashion quadrille.”
Keeping the forced pleasant smile on her face, the hostess seized Marianna’s arm, pulling her from the dance floor as the young couples began taking position. Lady Haverford’s lovely features tightened, accenting the lines about her eyes and side of her mouth. “Oh, I could kill Lord Haverford for inviting Lord Searle this morning,” she hissed. “And without consulting me. I will be sunk. Sunk! I must tell Lord Haverford that Searle must leave.” She hurried after her husband.
“Is Lord Searle in trouble?” Emma asked Marianna, her large eyes worried. She thought for moment. “Maybe he should sit in the naughty chair for five minutes.” The other children glanced at each other, visibly upset. How did they know Lord Searle?
“Come away, my dears,” Marianna said. She herded them through the guests and to the hall, where Mrs. Denison, the housekeeper, waited to take them to the kitchens.
Marianna counted to make sure all her sheep were present. “I have a surprise for you for performing so well.”
“Yes, a m-magnificent performance,” a rich baritone boomed.
Marianna wheeled around. Lord Searle stepped out of an empty parlor. The children rushed to him, sending him stumbling back against the wall, as they shoved their hands into his pockets
“Oh, you little brats have already found my candy.” He laughed as their chubby hands fished treats from his trousers and coat. How did he know them? The orphanage shouldn’t let someone like Lord Searle around the children. She must speak to headmistress.
One small boy extracted a box from the man’s coat. “Oh n-n-no, that’s not f-for you.” Searle said, retrieving it. “That’s for Miss Marianna.”
“Me?” Marianna cried. Why would Lord Searle have a gift for her?
“P-perhaps I could s-speak to you for a few minutes,” he said.
Marianna paused. The man clearly had a stutter. For all the times that his named graced the scandal columns, not one paper had mentioned a stutter.
“Children, why don’t you follow Mrs. Denison,” she said. “She has glacé for each of you downstairs.”
“Glacé!” they cried, and the good manners lecture Marianna had given them earlier that afternoon was forgotten as they went flying down the stairs.
Nonetheless, she giggled, listening to their excited voices. She doubted they had ever tasted glacé. When she turned, her laughter died away. Lord Searle was offering his arm, ready to escort her into the empty parlor. She couldn’t be alone with that man! If she were caught, she couldn’t hold up her head in public again. She opened her mouth to protest, but before any words formed, she realized that he might be giving her a contribution to the orphanage. Her reputation meant little if it saved another child.
“Of course,” she said, forcing a gracious smile. “I have a small moment, but I must get back.” The walls would be bare without her there to decorate them.
She didn’t take his arm but strolled past him. Even so, she passed close enough to smell his scent, clean and breeze-like, not what she expected from his ruffled appearance.
The parlor was dim except for the dancing flames in the grate and the moonlight spilling through the long arched windows that overlooked Hyde Park. She stationed herself beside the door, so she could quickly leave. Now she had the annoying problem of not knowing what to do with her hands or what to say. Her heart was pounding under the heat of his hypnotic pale eyes. No wonder women surrendered so easily to him. There was a magic in those eyes.
Searle felt foolish. What was he doing here? She was so different from the ladies who usually accompanied his nights. Marianna was respectable and innocent, like a piece of beautiful art he dare not touch but observe from a safe distance. And he had observed her, secretly for months, working at the orphanage, surveying the shelves at the neighboring bookstore, purchasing Pekoe tea with milk and sugar at the tea shop. From his library above the orphanage music room, he could hear her beautiful voice drift up. He listened to her work with the children. She was gentle, even in her admonishments. He couldn’t help but chuckle when he heard her say things like, “Now, Edwin, how would you feel if someone said that to you. Please hug each other and say you are sorry using kind words.” So different from the harsh spankings, ear boxing, and threats he had endured as a boy.
He knew that he should have stayed away tonight. But he wanted to see the children; he wanted to see her smiling at them. She had a lovely smile. It glowed through her eyes and lit up her face.
“I shan’t k-keep you,” he said. “I realize that I’m probably imp-p-p-proper. I was never good with s-social niceties. I-I just w-want to give you this.” He was stuttering like he did as a boy when his father was drunk and his mother talked incessantly of shopping, amassing jewelry and gowns to escape her surroundings. Now, he only stuttered when he was nervous. He held out the box, feeling very much like a five year old boy again, not the debauched libertine he had become. He opened the lid. Inside, the facets of gemstone on a gold chain sparkled in the firelight. “Sapphire,” he said. “Like the color of your eyes.”
She didn’t gush or give a silvery laugh like the other ladies in his acquaintance. She stepped back and crossed her arms about her. Suddenly, he was ashamed of his gift that he had spent all afternoon picking out.
“You should give that to the orphanage, Lord Searle,” she replied, her words slow and careful. She started edging to the entrance hall.
“But we w-w-wanted you to have it,” he cried, frustrated. “It’s for you. For all you’ve done. We wanted to th-thank you.”
“The orphanage, of c-course.”
She opened her mouth and then closed it. Her brows fell as her eyes sharpened. She tilted her head. “What have you to do with the orphanage? How do all the children know you?”
“I’m their father, of course.”
For a moment, he feared that she thought he was serious. But then she laughed, a musical sound that eased his taut chest.
“No, I’m the p-patron,” he explained. “I started it three years ago.”
“You?” she said. “You started the orphanage.”
She studied his face. A soft smile graced her lips, a light coming to her eyes. “I should thank you then.” she stepped closer, pressing her hands to her heart. “Working at the orphanage has been the most meaningful thing that I’ve ever done. I feel like it’s my home…and I’m certainly not an orphan.”
“There’s the home we are born to and the home we must make. A place where we are needed and…and l-l-loved,” the last word he could barely manage.
“Yes,” she whispered.
For a several long moments, neither spoke although the silence was thick with words that wanted to be said.
“You should go back,” he said, finally. “All the boys w-will want to dance with you.”
“No one ever dances with me.”
“I w-would if I were, well, r-respectable.”
She didn’t reply, but he could hear her inhalation through her part lips.
He needed to go. He couldn’t stand here all evening, gazing at a lovely, tender lady whom he could never have. He wished he could go back ten years and remake his life, so that he could be one of those respectable, clean-faced gentleman in the ballroom and draw her into his arms for a waltz.
“Marianna!” A woman’s voice boomed. Into the threshold, stepped a tall, slender matron in a pale green gown. Her silvery hair fell in stiff curls about her angry face. Behind her were Lord and Lady Haverford and two other guests.
“What are you doing with my daughter?” She yelled at Lord Searle and snatched Marianna elbow. “You come away immediately.”
Miss Marianna yanked away, backing into the room. She swayed on her feet as she glanced between her mother and him. Guilt pricked him. Just being near him had endangered her.
“I’m sorry,” he bowed to her mother. “This is entirely my fault. Miss Marianna is inno—”
“The kind Lord Searle has asked to me to dance.” Marianna interjected. “And I’ve accepted.”
Terror ripped through Marianna, as the reality of the situation set in. What was she doing? She couldn’t dance with the most notorious rake in London. Yet, looking into Lord Searle’s beautiful eyes, she didn’t see a libertine, but a hurt little boy inside man. A year ago, scared and unsure, she had dared to open her heart to frightened child and, in return, she had found a profound and sheltering love that gave meaning to her life. What would happen if she risked opening her heart to this man? She smiled as if she already knew the answer. Despite her mother’s shrieks of protest, a quiet peace washed over Marianna’s heart. She slowly approached Lord Searle and rested her hand on his arm.
“Come,” she whispered.