In the midmorning, Lady Elizabeth was out for a walk in the gardens. She was quietly reflecting on the ethereal beauty of the sunlight upon the rose bushes when her meditations were interrupted by Lady Margaret’s voice.
“Lady Elizabeth! How glad I am to find you at last. When your mother said you were in the gardens, I little imagined how vast an area I would have to search for you,” Margaret laughed as she approached.
“Lady Margaret,” Elizabeth greeted her with confusion. Her mother knew she liked to spend her morning walk in solitude, so it must have been a great matter to induce her to send a mere acquaintance out to find her.
“Do not be angry with me for disturbing you, dear Lady,” Margaret said with contrition. “I only came because I seek your aid. I received an invitation this morning to the Vaughans’ ball, and I am in dreadful need of your help in acquiring materials for my gown! Would you be a dear and give me your assistance?” she entreated.
Elizabeth hesitated, and then nodded her agreement.
“Thank you, my dear Lady Elizabeth,” she said, taking her arm. “Now, where are we to go first?”
“I suppose…the draper’s? Mr. Hodge has a very good selection of fabrics and trims,” Elizabeth said cautiously. The draper seemed to be the obvious first stop in the quest for materials for a gown; still, fear of leading Margaret to a merchant with a poor assortment of goods embraced her with hesitation.
“Then lead on,” Margaret said blithely. “I will follow your good judgement, for I hear of your superb taste.”
After informing Lady Leicester of their excursion, Elizabeth and Margaret walked the short distance to Mr. Hodge’s shop, where they examined his selection of fabrics and trims. Elizabeth was quite bewildered at the extent to which Margaret relied on her opinion, asking her about the slightest detail and paying close attention to her quiet, stuttered replies. Then, after Margaret finally chose the material for her dress and requested that it be sent to Mrs. Chalcroft, the best local dressmaker, Elizabeth realized what Margaret was about. As the girls left the shop and headed to the dressmaker’s to choose a pattern and have Margaret’s measurements taken, Margaret linked arms with Elizabeth, a gesture of familiarity and friendship that was as unexpected as it was deeply appreciated.
Margaret was making a purposeful effort to befriend her. The latter, upon realizing the former’s intention, felt nothing but the deepest thanks toward her new acquaintance. Where she had thought her warm and friendly at first, she now discovered that she had underestimated Lady Margaret’s kindness. Perhaps her and her brother’s stay in Leicester would not be too short a length to develop a friendship, after all.
Having paid her respects to the hosts and greeted her few friends, Elizabeth took a seat beside her mother and aunt, whose family was visiting until Charlotte’s wedding. From her seat, she could both attend to her relatives’ conversation and observe well the dancing. This she considered highly Providencial, for though she took great pleasure in dancing, she was rarely afforded the opportunity. In such gatherings where men were fewer than women, few took care to ask to stand up with her when there were more forthcoming partners to be had readily. She was resigned to enjoy the sight of fine dancing, and did so indeed for the first set, after which Charlotte and Mr. Cecil Bisshopp, her partner for the first two dances and fiance, joined her to rest from their activity for a short time. Their company did not last long, for they quickly found partners with whom to dance the next few sets.
In the pause before the last set preceding refreshments, Mr. Bisshopp and Charlotte again found their way to Elizabeth, whom they with sisterly and brotherly affection endeavored to amuse.
Mr. Bisshopp was just beginning to recount to the girls about his most recent trip to London, from which he had only returned the previous day, when he was politely interrupted by the approach of Lord Chelmsford. He bowed before them and said, “Good evening, Lady Elizabeth, Lady Charlotte.”
“Lord Chelmsford,” Charlotte nodded. “Allow me to introduce my fiance, Mr. Bisshopp.”
“My Lord,” Mr. Bisshopp said.
“Sir,” Edward replied, before saying, “Lady Elizabeth, I was wondering, if you are not engaged, if you would honor me by being my partner for the next set?”
The suddenness of his appearance, coupled with the honor of being asked by him to dance and the instinctual disquiet over what people would think of her dancing with this newcomer to their society, caused Elizabeth’s cheeks to heat rather quickly, which only served to heighten her natural beauty and innocence. “I–I would be honored, my Lord,” she said softly with some hesitation.
Just then, the music began. With a nod at Charlotte and Mr. Bisshopp, Lord Chelmsford extended his hand to Lady Elizabeth and led her to join the line of couples.