The Steward of Hanbury

Chapter Nine – Calls and a Valentine

Laurentia's predictions proved to be correct. As soon as the banns were read out by Reverend Hutton at the next Sunday service, she had the honour of having what appeared to be the whole of Cranford calling upon her.

While she felt no apprehension about the visits of Miss Matty and Miss Mary Smith whose company she did not mind in the least, theirs would have to wait. As expected, Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester were with the unerring dependability of a chronometer the first to offer their congratulations. They declared that they had both come with the intention of purchasing a new bonnet each but it was obvious that their true purpose was more akin to a reconnaissance than anything else. After being given barely enough time to explain what the latest fashions were, Laurentia was soon plunged into a one-sided and at times, frantically paced conversation.

Both were insatiable in desire to know details of the wedding, who was to be present, whether Mr Carter had gone down on bended knee – if that had indeed been possible, of course, added Mrs Forrester self-consciously – to propose to her and so on. Part of her was naturally flattered by the attention but being her introverted self, she dearly wished for the interview to end and she bore it with as much patience as she could muster, her mind wandering occasionally towards that small supply of snuff in the backroom and which she always kept ready in trying times such as these.

'You are indeed fortunate to have her ladyship's blessing, Miss Galindo,' said Miss Pole, the awe evident in her voice. Although Mrs Forrester had frequently informed her of the fact that she was a baronet's daughter, she had never regarded her as anything more than the town's milliner. Thus to have her forthcoming marriage so openly supported by the liege lady of Cranford was an occurrence of great import.

'I believe that that is mostly due to Mr Carter's position as her long-standing estate manager, Miss Pole,' replied Laurentia, deliberately omitting to mention her own personal connection with Lady Ludlow had played its part in gaining her attention in the matter. She had spent nearly two decades quite comfortably without revealing it and she had no intention of disclosing it now.

'And when will the wedding take place, Miss Galindo?' asked Mrs Forrester.

'We have settled for a date in June. The weather will be much warmer then and this year I find myself commissioned once again to make the coronets for May Day. All of us agreed that it would be for the best if I fulfilled that particular duty first.'

'A perfectly sensible arrangement. It is very heartening to see that this June will be a far better one than the last. And Mr Carter, I do hope that he is fully recovered now?'

'His leg troubles him a little at times but I am happy to report that he has more or less returned to his normal good health. He informs me that he was most grateful for your bread pudding, Mrs Forrester, during his convalescence. I believe that he has often wanted to give you his thanks but was unable to find the opportunity.'

'Oh, it was the least I could do for such a good gentleman as Mr Carter.' Mrs Forrester had always had a high regard for Lady Ludlow's estate manager and there was no higher token of her regard than to prepare some of her famous bread pudding, the recipe of which was so precious that she had no intention of ever divulging during her lifetime. She appeared greatly inspired on the subject but a warning look from Miss Pole told her to keep her peace.

'And will Mr Logue be playing any part in the ceremony?' asked Miss Pole.

'My dear Miss Pole, you must remember that they have only been engaged a fortnight,' whispered Mrs Forrester and smiling at Miss Galindo, she added, 'These things take up so much of one's time, Miss Galindo. I recollect that the late Colonel and I took weeks only trying to decide which cake to have at our wedding. I doubt that you and Mr Carter have had much time to think so far ahead.'

'No, we have not had that pleasure yet. However I am certain that these things will be known in due course.' In any case, she doubted whether anything could be kept from Miss Pole for long.

'We will miss you a great deal,' said Mrs Forrester sadly. 'Oh, and what shall we do without you, Miss Galindo? The Johnsons, of course, have their share of fine things and bonnets but they will never be comparable to yours.'

'Oh, please do console yourself, Mrs Forrester,' said Laurentia gently and not a little touched by her words. 'While I shall indeed be leaving King Street, I will not be moving very far.'

'Really, Mrs Forrester, do not exaggerate so; Hanbury is only two miles away,' said Miss Pole impatiently. 'They will not be moving abroad, thank heaven.' Here she cast an uncertain glance towards Miss Galindo. 'Unless of course Mr Carter has decided otherwise?'

'No, his work naturally obliges him to remain here. However I think there is no place in the world he would ever consider moving to from Cranford and I share his opinion.'

Miss Pole nodded vigorously. Any gentleman who declared that Cranford was the best of all places readily obtained her approval and though she was no great admirer of the male sex, Mr Carter rose a little higher in her estimation.

Laurentia turned her attention to the catalogue which she had been holding for the past half hour. 'Now, ladies, did you have anything particular in mind?'

'I hope Dr Marshland will not attempt to repeat his prank of last year,' said Miss Matty as she and Mary Smith admired the newest Valentine cards on display at Johnsons. 'Although I am sure that he meant no harm, it went quite out of hand and what unnecessary distress he caused as a result. Poor Dr Harrison!'

'I am sure that he will not do so again this year,' declared Mary with confidence. 'After I confronted him on the matter, he was most repentant.'

'Thankfully all was well in the end, I dread to think what would have happened had you not decided to intervene, Mary.'

The sound of footsteps behind them attracted her attention and turning round, she saw Mr Carter making his slow but steady way across King Street.

'My dear Mr Carter,' she called. At the sound of his name, he turned and made his approach. 'I hope you are quite well?'

'Very well, thank you, Miss Matty. I trust you are the same?'

'Yes, thank you, Mr Carter. Miss Smith and I had the pleasure of calling upon Miss Galindo the other day.'

At the very mention of his affianced's name, Miss Matty saw a light enter his eyes and his countenance usually so hard and stern softened at once. What wonders love did to people, she thought warmly.

'And seeing that we have given her our very best wishes,' added Mary, 'it is only natural that we should extend them to you, Mr Carter.'

'My thanks to the both of you,' he replied with feeling. He paused then said, 'Though perhaps had it not been for Dr Harrison's swift intervention, I would not now be in a position to accept them. You too did your part that day, Miss Smith; I have not forgotten.'

Mary shuddered a little at the memory. She had only been a witness to the whole operation but it was something she was unlikely to ever forget. Thus she could only imagine what the ordeal had been like for him and it surprised her a little at how willing he was to speak of it.

'You are too kind. The part I played that day was a very small one. I was only too happy to have been of assistance that afternoon and I am glad that you are have now recovered.'

Nodding wordlessly, his eyes fell briefly upon the window display behind them.

Following the direction of his gaze, Miss Matty said, 'We find that Mr Johnson is quite with the times, Mr Carter. Machines making Valentine cards; I believe my sister would not have approved.'

'No, she probably wouldn't have,' he agreed, remembering how the late Miss Deborah Jenkyns had been such a force to reckon with during her lifetime. 'It is a fact however that industrialisation is increasing in our times, Miss Matty, whether we like it or not. Society in general can undoubtedly profit from it –' he stopped for a moment, thinking remorsefully of the thousands sitting in the bank which he had accumulated this very same way, '– but ordinary folk suffer as a result. We must therefore do more and not less for them now.'

'Indeed, Mr Carter. You will not be purchasing one of these cards then, I imagine.'

'You imagine correctly.'

'Would you have anything else in mind for Miss Galindo this Valentine's Day?'

He cleared his throat a little self-consciously but before he could reply, she had already chided herself for her forwardness.

'Oh dear, do forgive me,' she said apologetically and glancing at Mary for support. 'You must think me most impudent.'

'Miss Matty, please do not distress yourself,' he said and she was immediately put at ease by his reassuring tone.

Mary smiled. 'I am sure that Mr Carter is anything but offended,' she said soothingly. 'Are you, Mr Carter?'

'Not in the least,' he replied, a glimmer of a smile on his face.

'Well, that puts my mind very much at ease,' said Miss Matty in relief.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Miss Galindo exit from her millinery, clearly preparing to close her parlour for the day.

'My apologies, ladies, but I'm afraid I must beg my leave.'

'But of course, Mr Carter. We will not detain you any longer.'

Thanking them once again and wishing them both a good day, he crossed the street and the two ladies watched him as he joined his affianced, the latter evidently surprised but happy to see him. Miss Matty and Mary shared a smile as they saw them walk arm in arm down King Street, engrossed in quiet conversation and acknowledging this or that passerby as they went past them.

'A lovely couple, are they not, Mary?' said Miss Matty.

Mary nodded. 'They are indeed.'

When Miss Matty had asked him about his plans for Valentine's Day, Mr Carter had felt slightly awkward in front of her and Miss Smith, partly because he was not used to being asked such questions and in so public a manner but mostly because he had little idea what to prepare for his bride to be. For the past five years, he had treated the day like any other and he found that it was difficult to return to that particular frame of mind.

In spite of the difficulty and a certain degree of reluctance, his progress was hastened by two people. One was Logue, who after showering him with the heartiest of congratulations had proceeded to quiz him over what he had planned for the day, an irritating but wholly cheerful glint in his eye. Carter had dodged his questions after quickly changing the topic but it was not as easy to evade Harry.

After he had been assured that neither Mr Carter nor Miss Galindo were angry with him that afternoon for his behaviour or for shattering one of Mr Carter's inkwells, Harry's disposition afterward was one of great and continual excitement. Not a day passed without the boy asking innumerable questions about their forthcoming marriage or the various customs which were to be expected before, during and after the ceremony. Harry's sense of curiosity was one of the aspects of his character which had first gained his admiration but sometimes it was quite exhausting to keep up with him.

'You may have Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester to deal with, Laurentia,' he said quietly when Harry had left the office to make more ink, 'But you forget that I have Harry to keep me company as well.'

She glanced fondly at the temporarily vacated table between them before saying, 'You are too hard on him, Edward. I think it is perfectly natural for him to ask us such things. After all, I doubt that he has ever had the chance to see a wedding firsthand, much less the preparations which go into it.'

'That may be so,' he said. He then added lowly, a smile playing on his lips: 'But if I am to speak plainly; if I could have my way, I wouldn't stand on ceremony at all and marry you this instant.'

'Edward!' she cried, and to her great embarrassment, she found that she was more pleased than shocked by the prospect and felt her cheeks flush upon this realisation.

'Are you all right, Miss Galindo?' said Harry as he chose this moment to re-enter the room, a pot of newly-made ink in his hand. 'You've gone all red.'

'Harry,' said Mr Carter warningly but Miss Galindo it was all an act for she could well see the thinly veiled amusement in his blue eyes when he glanced in her direction. In spite of what everyone perceived him to be, she was beginning to realise that beneath his gruff exterior, the man could be just as mischievous as his young protégé when the mood took him.

Harry apologised to each of them in turn and handed over the ink before returning to his seat.

Some minutes passed, the only sound being that of nibs scratching against paper before Harry asked rather innocently into the silence:

'Mr Carter, what are you going to give Miss Galindo for Valentine's Day?'

Mr Carter's hand stopped abruptly in mid-air as he reached to dip his pen into the inkwell. He was secretly glad that he had not yet managed to reach it otherwise he would have spilled it all over his desk.

He looked up, observing that she too had stopped writing, her gaze fixed upon his face and an expression on her face which seemed to convey that it was now her turn to be amused at his discomfiture. She quickly assumed a more serious expression in case Harry should turn her way but he did not.

'I – ' started Mr Carter before recollecting himself. 'Harry, this is not the time or the place to be asking such things. Especially when Miss Galindo is present.'

'Is it meant to be a surprise, sir?'

He coughed, looking down at letter he had been composing and mumbled more to himself than to anyone else in the room, 'I think that is the general understanding.'

He was saved from further discussion on the matter when Miss Galindo proceeded to ask Harry what he knew of Valentine's Day and its traditions. Mr Carter knew at once that she was distracting him in order to give him some respite from his uneasiness and he was wholly grateful.

His resolve to find something suitable for her strengthened and he pondered long and hard over this unusual dilemma of his. There lingered at the back of his mind a voice which chided him that a man of his age and station in society had more important things to do and that he should have long dispensed with such frivolities but he was determined to go through with it. At last he found what he required and not a moment too soon for the fourteenth fell upon Cranford with astonishing rapidity.

Soon a variety of gifts and cards were delivered to the ladies of the town which, for perhaps the first time in her life, also included Miss Galindo who was taken quite unawares. A knock upon her door alerted her of the arrival of a small but carefully wrapped package.

It came with no note or flowers and she opened it with curiosity. Soon she was in possession of a fine pair of lilac kid gloves, delicately embroidered at the cuffs in light blue thread. A note was folded between them on which was simply written in his steady hand:

To my dearest Laurentia

From your own Edward

There were no flowery salutations or over-amorous declarations of love but it was entirely his style and it only served to increase her appreciation for him.

When she saw him on the grounds at Hanbury later that afternoon, he had appeared a little anxious when she approached, almost as if he was unsure whether his gift had been well-received.

'I hope they are to your liking,' he said when she mentioned them.

'They are quite exquisite. I like them a great deal.'

'I am glad of it,' he said with obvious relief, clasping her hand in his other hand as she took his arm. 'I was quite concerned that you would not like them or even worse, laughed at my lack of good taste. In any case, you would have been quite justified if that had happened.'

'You do no credit to yourself for thinking so. I could not have chosen better myself.'

'Do I sense a compliment in that declaration?'

'Not at all, I speak entirely in earnest.'

'You are much too good to me.'

They had nearly reached his office when she said, 'Just one moment, Edward.'

He looked at her, puzzled. 'Whatever for?'

'I haven't given you my gift yet.'

'A gift?'

'Well, when one receives a gift, it is customary to give one in return, is it not?' she said with a smile. She retrieved the portfolio which she had brought with her and presented it to him.

He took it, uncertain of what to expect. When he opened it, she saw his eyes widen in surprise for in his hands was the drawing she had begun on the day of the garden party. It depicted him in profile, as she often found him when he looked out onto the grounds. His eyes were focused on some spot in the near distance, an intensity in them so very much his own. In the past few months, she had taken the little time she had to herself to eventually improve and finish it but she had never thought of giving it to him until this morning.

'Does it meet with your approval?' she asked.

'I confess I have always had a wish to see your sketches but never did I imagine you would have drawn me,' he said when he found his voice again. 'You have chosen a poor model, Laurentia; I can see why most of Cranford believes me to such a stern fellow. I shouldn't be surprised if I terrified them all.'

'Now you are being too harsh on yourself,' she said and looking at the drawing before them. 'I for one do not see that.'

'Do you not?'

'No. I only see the man who one day came into my parlour with flowers and within an hour convinced me what a splendid man he was.'

'Now you are being quite biased,' he said. In spite of his attempts to appear otherwise, she could see that her words had affected him and she felt him squeeze her hand in appreciation as they went inside.