The Honourable Michael Sedgwick briskly made his way down Grosvenor Square, his cane, a pure affectation, swinging and clicking on the cobblestones. He was unpardonably punctual, a habit he had inherited from a lifetime of country living. His maternal grandmother had meticulously pounded into his head the value of every minute of the day, emphasising that punctuality equaled profit. Of course, she was also considered quite vulgar in the extreme and he was working hard to forget her every lesson.
Michael’s father was the younger son of the late Viscount Denham, and his mother had been the daughter of a well-to-do country squire. They had lived comfortably for all of his first sixteen years in a remote village in Sussex, where Michael’s father had procured a small twenty-room cottage and proceeded to tutor local boys in the art of becoming fine and educated gentlemen. Unfortunately, consumption had carried away both mother and father in quick succession, leaving the sixteen-year-old Michael to the loving ministrations of his miserly grandmother, a penny pinching matron who had married well above her station.
Upon his twentieth year, Michael had been summoned to London by his paternal uncle, a man who had the misfortune to only sire daughters, all of whom were now happily and comfortably married off. Uncle James and Aunt Prudence, the current viscount and viscountess, had resigned themselves to the fact that Michael was the heir, as no male issue was forthcoming. They were determined to mold him into the kind of man they deemed worthy of the Denham fortune and title. Such remodeling required a wife, and a wife that was well bred and perfectly behaved would go a long way toward ameliorating the damage of his less than stellar birth.
To this end he was now pacing down Grosvenor Square toward the residence of one Lady Esther Goodhope and her daughter Miss Gwyndolyn Goodhope. However, the habits of a lifetime were difficult to break, and punctuality was ingrained in his character. Despite his man recommending he delay his departure by some twenty minutes, too full of nervous anticipation to sit languidly within his apartments, Michael set forth on foot, waving off the offer to call a hackney. This country-bred gentleman was not afraid of a little fresh air and exercise, although the freshness of the air, even in this more refined part of London, was quite uncertain.
Passing a street vendor peddling her flowers, Michael was struck with the thought that it would be ill-mannered to arrive empty-handed to a lady’s ‘At home’, so he crossed the street and hailed the young flower-selling lass.
“A posy, if you please,” he requested without preamble.
“Aye, sir,” the slip of a girl replied. “Which posy be yer wantin?”
Michael hesitated as he studied the wares scattered about her in buckets and trays. “Ah… I do believe the yellow ones are cheerful.”
“Oh, sir, they be carnations. They is fer disappointed peoples them is.” She shook her head. “Ye wantin’ ta reject some poor luv now?”
“Oh, no! Quite the opposite!” Carnations were for rejection? Well, how was he to know that. Luckily for him, the girl was not so much of a hardened saleswoman that she was ready to peddle her wares to unsuspecting clients who knew no better. He pointed to a purple cluster of flowers atop their thick green stalks. “Perhaps these, they are quite striking in colour.”
“Ye are mighty sorry for somewhat, then? Them’s are Hyacinths. Powerful for asking forgiveness for yer foolish ways.”
Michael frowned, he had only ever met Miss Gwyndolyn Goodhope once, and that was last evening. He was almost sure he had done nothing to offend her.
“Well no, I don’t believe I am in need of the lady’s forgiveness. Not yet in any case, but perhaps…” he thought about it. There were so many things that he didn’t know, so many possibilities for mistakes in his future, that he tucked the notion of the purple hyacinth into his brain for future reference. A bright yellow flower clustered like balls upon their leafy stems caught his eye. “This one seems quite the thing.”
“Oh, sir! That be a marigold. It says grief and despair, are you wishing to share yer sorrow with the lass?”
“No, of course not!” Michael withdrew his handkerchief to wipe the perspiration that began to accumulate on his brow. Who knew that selecting flowers was such an exacting and excruciating endeavour? He scrutinised the offerings before him for inspiration and spied a cluster of yellow flowers that he recognised. Sunflowers. His mother had grown them every year, and they were as innocent and cheerful as any flower could be. He had just pointed to the large yellow and black flower when the lass stopped him.
“Nay sir, unless you was wishing ta call yer sweetheart haughty and falsely proud. Well, fer all I knows, she just might be. Is you callin’ her haughty?”
Michael shook his head emphatically and withdrew the hand. Who would have thought the humble sunflower would have such a meaning? What a huge blundering misstep that would have been. Once again, he wrung his handkerchief between his sweating palms and mopped at the beads that he could feel accumulating on his top lip. Dare he suggest a different flower?
He glanced inquisitively at a riot of colour on some quite interesting spears of petals and foliage. But before he could open his mouth she halted him. “Snapdragons, presumptuous. Ye never want ta say ye is presumptuous, do ye?”
Michael agreed with a shake of his head. Best not to presume anything at this moment, with the fair Gwyndolyn.
“These pink ones are pretty.”
The girl laughed, “Oh sir, ye don’t seem like the bashful type. Perhaps yer lady love is. Is that what ye mean ta say by picking the peony?”
Bashful, well, perhaps he was a bit, but to advertise that to the world at large? Perhaps not the best choice. He pointed to another bundle of flowers clustered in a bucket. They were quite unusual, with angular jutting petals clustered in tight pink balls and sporting yellow centres.
“I don’t think that be the best flower for ye, sir. That dahlia says either the sender or receiver is unstable of character, like.”
Michael cast his hand toward some pretty flowers that grew clustered together in bright pink bunches amid stunning deep green leaves. He seemed to remember these types of flowers from when he was a boy. His mother had grown them in the garden beds by the front door of their cottage.
“The rhododendron, sir?” The girl’s voice rose in pitch, her eyes wide as she visibly shuddered. “That just screams, beware! Are ye trying to frighten off yer lady now?”
Beware? Could a flower really have such a sinister motivation? He wasn’t sure that the flower girl was really telling him the truth. Perhaps she made these things up as she went along, but to what purpose? Surely her purpose was to sell flowers.
“Since every flower I have selected seems to have the wrong message, perhaps you should pick me a bouquet that says something in the nature of, ‘I was pleased to meet you last night and I hope you will think of me kindly’. Is there such a flower?”
“Well, not one flower says all that.” She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully as she glanced from flower to flower, her hands picking out stems here and there as she spoke. “White lily for the sweetness and purity of yer thoughts, let her know ye are thinkin of her, but nice, like, not nasty like some men be. Then some pretty pansies, the purple and yellow ones are for thoughts and remembering, like. We can add some statice for remembering too. The white jasmine says ye find her amiable.” She looked up at him, her arms filled with flowers. “Ye do find her amiable, don’t ye.” Michael nodded, unable to speak as the posy of flowers grew in size. “We can add the carnations-”
“But you said they were for rejection?”
“Oh, that is only the yellow ones,” she laughed. “The pink ones say ‘I will never forget you’ and if you want to make sure she understands that, we might want more of em.” She gathered three more blooms to add to the collection in her arms. “Finally, we can add some lilac. Oh, and some periwinkle for the sincere friendship ye wish to have with this lucky lady.”
The seller bundled all the blooms together and tied them with some twine before she wrapped the stems in paper and presented the enormous posy to Michael for his inspection. It seemed to be a hideous mass of colours and textures to his untrained eye and he took the bundle reluctantly. He nearly collapsed as the seller named her price, the flowers must have been worth their weight in gold for her to ask such a painfully exorbitant sum, but like a dutiful, easy mark, he fished out the coin from his purse and paid the girl without argument. If the flowers said all that she said they said, then it would be money well spent.
Now armed with a hideous bouquet, Michael continued on his way. His thoughts and hopes turned to Miss Gwendolyn Goodhope. Would she understand the message in his floral offering? With each step, he became less and confident. There was good and then there was gaudy, and he feared his clever saleswoman had steered him in the second direction in order to move her wilting flowers.
Miss Gwyndolyn Goodhope sat enthroned in her mother’s drawing room, practicing her studied ennui. It was fashionable, she was told, to be bored. She had spent hours before the mirror to get her expression just so, to remove the twinkle of intelligence and interest from her eye and allow her face to sit in a pleasant aspect with neither a line nor a wrinkle. It was exhausting, and she was tired. But mama insisted a prettily bred lady would show no sign of untoward emotion.
“The Honourable Michael Sedgwick.” Intoned Timms from the door to the drawing room. Timms should have been an actor on stage, his proclamations and announcements boomed with resounding resonance across the room.
Gwyndolyn tilted her head slightly to see the new arrival, a tall lanky youth dressed in the first stare of fashion. He wasn’t as handsome as some, but he, at least, looked alive, which was more than she could say about the other members of his sex who filled the room with their perfection. He presented himself before her mother with a practiced bow and a few pleasant words, before he turned to her and presented her with the most eclectic arrangement of flowers haphazardly cobbled together with paper and string. These flowers were in stark contrast to the other floral offerings in the room. This morning she had been presented with daffodils and tulips, roses and irises. Each one carefully curated from the best hothouses to look beautiful and arranged with meticulous care. By contrast, these blooms were imperfect and bundled together without care for artistic arrangement.
“Thank you,” Gwyndolyn murmured as she accepted the bouquet with interest. “These are…” She paused as a symphony of scents surrounded her. The hothouse flowers she had received did not have such perfume, bred solely for their bloom. “These are charming.” And they were. The gaudy riot of colours and textures cobbled together was incredibly alive and vibrant.
“I was assured by the vendor that each bloom held a special meaning.” His face flushed with embarrassment and he dared not meet her eye. Gwyndolyn studied each flower individually, her mind casting about for the language of flowers. She could feel her brow creasing as she thought and immediately resumed her facade of studied boredom, lest she invite a wrinkle to form.
“I appreciate them. They are delightful.” She motioned to her maid. “Betty, please put these into a vase and deliver them to my room.” The maid hurried to do her bidding. “I must confess, Mr Sedgwick, that my memory of the floral meaning is quite unreliable.”
“I do believe the lass who curated this bouquet may have been sporting with me.” Mr Sedgwick appeared discomposed and nervous as he made the admission. “I must admit total ignorance of the meaning embedded in the floral tribute and am at the mercy of the saleswoman. I hope she has not misrepresented my message.”
Once the callers had departed, Lady Esther Goodhope sent her daughter to her room to rest before changing for the evening’s entertainment. Gwyndolyn immediately opened ‘A Lady’s Guide to Floral Code’ that she had purloined from her Father’s library.
As she checked each bloom off against the picture and its description, she found the meanings quite easily. Purity, remembrance, amiability, the significance of the message was not lost upon her. But nestled within were the delicate lilacs, their fragrance permeating the air about her. She flicked through the pages of the book to find their meaning. A first love. Well, that was presumptuous. But the gentleman in question was a future viscount, according to her mother, and her mother knew the contents of ‘Debrett’s, a Guide to English Peerage’ intimately through years of dedicated study. There could be worse first loves to have than a viscount. She rang the bell for Betty.
“Please change out the ribbons on my dress this evening,” she told the maid as she arrived. I think I shall wear the lilacs in my hair to this evening’s entertainment.
After all, the floral language of love was quite explicit, and she did fancy herself a viscountess.