The soft wine-red satin folds of my gown’s skirt whispered past each other as I stepped from the Surrey taxi onto the pebble road, my silver and wine satin pumps sliding over the little stones smoothly as I approached the gate of Silver Wood Cottage. The cab driver shut the car door behind me, and with his polite British “good day, ma’am,” he took his seat, turned the cab around, and drove back to town. I watched him drive away through the arched tree branches of the Silver Wood, the cottage gate waiting behind me, and before me the open fields basking happily in the rays of the setting sun, the grasses swaying sweetly as if to the beat of the music escaping the stone walls of the cottage.
I took a deep breath in and allowed my shoulders to fall as I let out the breath. It had been so long since I last felt such security and tranquility. Everything I had seen of this country in the last week was so peaceful and stable. There was comfort here, and the people were welcoming and warm. I could only wish that the same were true of my home country of Kalietzi.
The cottage’s music grew louder suddenly, and I turned towards it. The front door stood ajar, the light of the cottage spilling out into the evening around a tuxedoed young man and a stately blonde girl as they stood, each lost in the eyes of the other as they spoke softly and he gently held her hand under his arm. I watched the two move out into the garden in front, taking a stroll among the roses and geraniums as the front door closed on the image of couples whirling and swaying to the music on the dance floor. I opened the gate and made my own way to the entrance of Silver Wood Cottage.
A new burst of music introduced itself to my ears when I entered the room and swerved away from a couple dancing closer to me than I realized. I then stood by the door, looking on at the swaying, dipping, twisting, twirling, and ducking of about a dozen colorfully dressed couples in the middle of the room as they moved from one end to the other and back again to the sway of the lilting music. At the end of the dance, the women and girls began to mill about in their gowns, each on the arm of the man or boy she had danced with. The colors of the dresses and gowns seemed to be lively enough to make up for the lack of music when the string quartet switched songs between each dance, the colors brushing past each other in sachets and whispers. Each dance was different, with one being a folk dance and the next would be a square dance or whatever other dance a certain blonde girl would request.
Wait, hadn’t I just seen the same blonde girl walk outside with the young man? No, it was a different girl. This one wore a shimmering navy gown, not a plush pink one. I guess they were either look-alikes or twins.
Mostly along the wall around those who danced were other men and women and boys and girls who were either waiting to dance or sitting and standing, contentedly talking or stuffing their mouths with food. The only exception was a woman wearing a violet gown and sitting in a corner. Her scarlet and violet dyed hair was braided into an elegant bun with strands dangling in her face whenever she bowed her head over the notebook in her lap, and she wrote quick lines in it every now and then as she observed those around her. I suppose she was Surrey’s newspaper journalist who was observing the event more than participating in it.
To be honest, I knew not a single soul at this dance, not even the hosts who, as my landlady told me, were the Squire and Lady Lambford of Lambford Estate in London. All I knew of them other than their names and the fact that they were nobility with a place in Parliament was that they had come back to Surrey for a much needed weekend getaway, and they had three children, the oldest of whom was their twenty-year-old son, Lord Sean, who was the heir to all Lambford property and fortunes. Any other information about those present was wholly unknown to me. For that reason alone, did I stand apart from others and indulge my grumbling stomach with my favorites from the hors d’oeuvres table: delectable beluga and salmon lox.
“I don’t remember such a beautiful woman ever having graced a Surrey dance with her presence before,” a British baritone remarked behind me. I continued picking tiny green capers from the salmon dish and placing them on my own salmon; I assumed the man was speaking to some other girl around me. An amused chuckle reached my ears before I saw the man from the corner of my eye as he stepped to the table, and he was certainly a man with his Mr. Darcy-esque appearance that Colin Firth portrayed so impeccably and that this man somehow embodied.
“I see you have a refined taste in food if you can stomach caviar, lox, and capers,” he said, taking one of the glasses of champaign from a platter a butler offered him. I finally looked up as he added, “I have never been able to eat caviar, and yet, I was brought up in nobility. Strange how tastes can mismatch heritage.” He took a sip of his champaign at the end of his remark, and I couldn’t help but smirk at his conclusion while looking down to put a white and dark chocolate candy on my plate. I felt him looking at me, expecting me to say something, but any words I might have said escaped through the back door of my mind as quickly as they could. I suppose they did not want to be brought out into the open air and left there, never capable of returning to their frequented and comfortable hiding place. The man noticed my silence, so he broke his.
“I could see you from across the room. You came in and then you just stood there, silently watching everyone dancing, not even sitting down to watch and perhaps talk to someone. That is very different from any girl in here, and even different from any other woman in here.” He paused. “Especially my sisters,” he observed to himself, looking out across the room. I followed his gaze to the blonde girl in the navy dress who twirled from a hand into the boy’s arm in a waltz. Mr. Darcy’s real-life embodiment turned back to me.
“You see her? She’s my youngest sister, Emilie. She has a twin, Celeste, but… I do not see her anywhere. She must be outside. I hope my parents know where she is,” he said to himself. “They’re fifteen, so you can imagine that they’re a little coquettish,” he added, laughing a little. Laughing myself, some words finally came to me.
“So, your entire family is here?” I asked, my Kenyan-like African accent thickening my English. The man grinned and chuckled.
“Yes. This is my family’s cottage,” he replied nonchalantly, and I choked on the tiny spoonful of beluga I had just taken a bite of. “Are you all right?” he quickly asked. Nodding, I set down my plate and cleared my throat as quietly as I could.
“You’re the Lord Sean Lambford?” I gasped out in surprise, looking at him in astonishment.
“Oh! Yes! I forgot to introduce myself, didn’t I?” he responded, his eyes betraying his horror at his own forgetfulness as he leaned forward apologetically. I nodded dumbly, realizing it was my first time in the company of British nobility, though I guess it was a little less exciting than meeting the African royalty my parents used to meet with every year when I was growing up. “I am so sorry,” he apologized. “Yes, I am the Lord Sean Lambford – though, I do prefer to only be called Sean Lambford. Putting ‘Lord’ at the beginning seems too old-fashioned and far more proper than I like.” A look of realization sparked in his eyes, and he set down his champaign glass to add,
“It seems I can’t hold my tongue once I begin talking, and you’re far too polite to interrupt me if you have something to say, so I’m not giving you a chance to say anything. For that, I apologize and urge you to speak as much as you like on any topic, and I’ll encourage you in doing so.” I had to smile at his speech of kindness and humor in his attempt to encourage me to speak. The only problem was that whenever I’m told I can speak about anything I want, every topic I enjoy discussing flees my mind and I remain standing or sitting, depending on the occasion, with not a word willing to venture into the air it seldom feels. This same situation immediately followed Lord Sean’s speech, but he waited patiently for me to break the deafening silence that ensued between us by myself.
“Is no topic coming to mind?” he finally asked. I chuckled and shook my head, turning back to my plate of caviar and salmon to take a small bite of the chocolate. “No? Well, all right. Perhaps we should start with your name. You haven’t introduced yourself either, I might mention.” At that, I put the rest of the chocolate back on my plate, the sudden twisting of my stomach destroying my appetite – even for something as universally delicious as chocolate. I nervously began to tap my plate as I looked out at those now swinging in time with the Charleston. Lord Sean saw the sudden tension rise in me and he furrowed his brows in confusion and worry.
“Is something wrong? Is it something I said?” he asked. I pushed a strand of rusty gold-red hair back into my braided rose bun as I tilted my head from side to side to say yes and no. He tilted his own head in more confusion as I turned back to my plate and picked pettishly at the contents with my fork.
“I don’t intend to be rude, but how can your name bring about such sudden nerves in someone?”
“Because of who it means I am,” I said bluntly, still looking at my plate. Lord Sean remained quiet for a moment, then,
“And that would be…?” Sighing, I looked up at him and shakily whispered as fast as I could,
“The Crown Princess of Kalietzi.” Numb silence followed between us while the sound of the music and the chatter and the sweeping of satin skirts around us seemed to slow or fade in our hearing, and the movements of the dancing couples and the stand-alone bachelors waiting or looking for partners all became blurs slowly passing us as the heat of the grief and the stress I’d hoped to leave at my boarding house pressed in on me from my heart. Lord Sean knew the weight of the moment. I could see it in his eyes the second I responded when his mouth gaped a centimeter and his eyes widened in understanding and horror at what he understood. Then, when he spoke, the oppressive spell of the heat broke, and the sounds and the movements clashed back into my senses in a cacophony.
“You’re Princess Esme?” he said softly. “The princess who the Kalietzi guerrillas chased through Africa and Europe for the past year and a half?”
“And who lost her parents to the same militants,” I whispered, glancing at my plate, my nerves calming now that the words that had been hiding fearfully in the basement of my mind were in the open air. He smiled sadly, watching me move my fork around my capers and salmon.
“And yet you’re here, an introverted girl of seventeen bravely walking into a very social dance where you know no one so that you might be able to leave the worries of your asylum request being processed along with painful memories behind and have some fun, something you haven’t had the luxury to do for far too long.” I looked at him in surprise, and I guess my face asked the question that was on the tip of my tongue for me because he added, “my father is a prominent member of Parliament, and someday I’ll take his place.” Right. I had evidently forgotten that. My surprise melted into thankfulness at how much he actually understood, and my face must have shown it for he let go of his champaign glass, smiled kindly, and offered me his arm, saying, as the quartet began “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon”,
“Well, may I have this dance?” I set down my fork and smiled as I took his arm. He then led me to the floor with grace and spun me ‘round till the rising of the summer moon.