Once Upon a Dreamy Match – Bridget Barton

Miss Daphne Blanton arose that morning at seven o’clock sharp to begin her day with a stroll around the garden. She found this time to be the most peaceful of the day, especially on one such as this. The air was fresh from the previous night’s rain and tasted sweet on her tongue. The whole property sparkled in a fine mist, adorned with crystallised droplets of dew that gleamed like tiny gemstones atop every leaf and petal. No creature, man or woman stirred about the house this early morning; save for the chickens in their coop and the house cat out for a morning stroll of her own, the world was entirely Daphne’s. The girl of twenty rounded the rose bushes and trailed the fence line, taking advantage of the quiet to ruminate on the health of her father. The entire week past, Mr. Walter Blanton had been bedridden, though his daughter harboured suspicions that this was of his own volition. A mere common cold plagued him, and all were aware of it. Yet he chose to spend each day confined to his chambers and bemoan his ailing health. Though she had not voiced her thoughts aloud, she knew the manners of her father; she knew he was eager to regain the affections of his wife – her stepmother – Mrs. Roberta Blanton. Daphne would not usually expend valuable time upon her father’s new wife. She had long since tried to foster their connection, hoping that it would grow in mutual appreciation, however Mrs. Blanton’s temperament was questionable at best; at worst, she was quite vile.

Daphne could not, of course, express this to her beloved father, who was utterly besotted with the witch. An understanding of why her father, a lonely widower, found her so appealing was simple enough to grasp – Roberta was indeed a handsome woman of impressive stature and standing alike, and a decade her father’s junior. This, in turn, made Daphne her stepmother’s junior by the same stretch of time. Whilst they were only somewhat distant in age, were they so far apart that they could not share a conversation? Were they of such polar ends that finding common ground was so gruelling a task? It often seemed the case. What little did transpire between the Blanton women was terse; cordial only by polite necessity. It was against Daphne’s character to speak ill of anyone, even if her more uncouth thoughts were those that aligned with her true feelings. The pebbled pathway crunched underfoot, the sound pleasant and familiar in her ears. The warming sun was beginning to expel the mist from the ground, and Daphne watched it go with a melancholy sigh. The new season was upon them, and it would be her third. The seasons past had brought their share of expectation and anticipation but since her debut, and her excitement pertaining to London’s potential had waned.

Two trips to the city had resulted in no relationship of great consequence. Perhaps her standing was just not that of someone who attracted the right kind of attention, but she was determined not to believe she was destined for a spinster’s life. There would be no greater shame. The season was about to begin, and yet Daphne had made no travel arrangements. How could she, when her father was so unwell? It would not be right for her to abandon him in such a state, and she herself knew that she would spend the season too fraught with worry over his welfare to secure any kind of relationship. Her third season seemed destined to be spent here, in her father’s home, unless, of course, she could coax him from his delusions of illness. It did not help that her two brothers, Jasper and Lionel, twins at almost thirteen, delighted themselves by providing their elder sister with constant reminders of the passing of time. She would be a crone before she was able to find a suitable match! Like most young women her age, Daphne’s expectations for herself were aligned with those of society. She would meet a respectable gentleman, they would court for some time before her father approved of the marriage, after which time they would wed. He would inherit property, and she title.

The marriage would be content and of mutual benefit. Of the utmost importance would be that Daphne would be happy – happy and secure. These were, naturally, her expectations; as for what she wished for herself, that was something she kept more closely guarded. In truth, the Daphne lacked the necessary dowry and title that would otherwise garner her preferred attention. She was smart enough to comprehend that marrying for love was a fool’s errand. With the exception of Mr. Blanton’s first wife: her mother. Theirs was a true love story, cut short by the woes of consumption some four years past. That had been the darkest time of the family’s life. The boys had lost their mother so young, and Daphne feared they had suffered for it.

She, too, wallowed in the loss for quite a time. The two of them had been firm allies and friends, united in the face of being outnumbered by the Blanton men. Now, there was only Daphne (for she did not count her stepmother among her allies). To think on her mother too long was to invite misery, so Daphne expelled those musings. Finally, at the end of her turn about the garden, the rest of the property began to stir to life. Beyond the fence she could make out the arrival of the groundskeepers and gardeners who would begin their daylong attendance of the estate. For Daphne, this was the cue for her to begin her next task: rousing her father. The merchant house where she, her brothers, Mr. Blanton and Mrs. Blanton resided was a handsome enough abode of red brick and dark timber.

It was one of the largest houses on the property, standing at two storeys tall – three if you counted the small attic space, which Mr. Blanton certainly did. The hedges at the front were dissected by the narrow pathway and gate, which led directly out onto the road that connected this house to Hedingham Manor, home of the Gildons. The back garden, which Daphne walked most frequently, was modest in size and rooted with an abundance of greenery and colour. One Benedict Gildon, Lord of Hedingham Manor and Daphne’s most treasured friend, saw to it that she had every flower she desired planted amongst it. As a result, the garden was full of roses, bellflowers, delphiniums, geraniums, peonies, lavender and lady’s mantle. Such was the kindness of her adored companion that he did her this favour many years ago. The distant Manor loomed over the crest of the hill a few miles up the road. Daphne caught sight of its turrets and wondered on what Lord Gildon’s plans for the day may be. Certainly, his life was more interesting than hers with all the wonders and adventures of enjoying the life of a high society citizen.

Benedict would always tease her envious nature, but in truth Daphne did not honestly believe that she would fit into his world. Her life as a merchant’s daughter, though bland more days than not, was not without its comforts. After all, her greatest goal as it stood was only to secure a suitable husband, and this was providing her enough worries as it was. With what little excitement such a prospect could bring, she was more than content with her current lifestyle. If nothing else, at least the stories her father always brought home after his journeys beyond were of quality entertainment, though there hadn’t been such a tale for some time now. Daphne crossed the garden and climbed the steps to the back door. She removed her coat and left it at the hook by the threshold, walking along the back of the kitchen, past the larder and through the sitting room where the housekeeper would normally have coaxed a fire in the hearth by now. Their housekeeper, Mrs. Orville, was a portly and red-cheeked woman about her father’s age. She was of good nature and kind disposition, if not a little on the strict side.

A woman of few words, what she did offer always promised comfort to the young Miss Blanton. Not two weeks ago, the docile Mrs. Orville had been driven to madness and walked out of the home. Daphne had never in her life seen the woman worked up in such a state. She had swept out of the house like a storm, announcing that she had simply had enough of Mr. Blanton’s antics. Daphne had never managed to conclude what exactly had transpired between the two, but she did not want to blame the poor woman, who had always tried her best to do right by the family even when Mr. Blanton made the task an exceptionally tiresome one. It did not help that Jasper and Lionel made it their civic duty to taunt and provoke the once-sweet woman. Mrs.

Orville had borne no children to her husband before he passed, a fact that had worn on her since his passing some years ago. Her affections for Daphne were maternal in many aspects, but the young Miss Blanton would never have considered her a replacement for her mother. The first Mrs. Blanton was a picture of grace and compassion, respectable in manner, easy in temperament, fair in her discipline. Daphne missed her dearly, and often thought of her when she caught sight of her own reflection. They shared many of the same features: dark and curling hair, eyes like spring moss, the small nose and milky complexion, though in Daphne’s mind her mother had worn these features better than her; there was just a little too much of Mr. Blanton in her cheeks and jaw to be considered a true beauty. The house had fallen into disarray upon Mrs. Orville departure. Daphne endeavoured to keep it as best she could – after all she did plan to be a wife some day.

They were lucky to have their loyal maid remain with the family but in truth, Mrs. Orville had far more knowledge and control over keeping house than Daphne ever could. Even now the house was filled with dust, the floors were unswept, the hearth barren. For a household of this size, there were simply not enough staff to manage it. If only she could bring her father back into society – maybe Mrs. Orville would forgive him and return to them. She could hardly bear the thought of hosting company, which was another of her perpetual worries. What if Benedict were to happen by for a neighbourly visit? She would simply die of embarrassment on the spot. With a sigh, Daphne began to climb the stairs, thinking on how she would approach her father this morning. She had strived to be empathetic to his condition, but his personality had grown cumbersome.

Perhaps she would try for a harder approach, present him with some kind of ultimatum. She could set her brothers upon him, though it seemed the boys had little interest in their father these days. Without his adventurous stories to fill their young minds with wonder they apparently saw little value in him. When they would not be busied with whatever duties the Lord of Hedingham bestowed upon them, they spent their time playing in the street and generally causing a typical ruckus. Though the tougher approach to today’s awakening had some appeal, she knew that it was a farce in her own mind; she could never be unkind to her father, even if the situation demanded it. It would have the opposite effect, she decided, and send him spiralling down another miserable path. Feelings of being abandonment would come to picnic with those of relating to his alleged ailments. The hallway was lit by a single window which Daphne used as a mirror to adjust some fly-away curls. The least she could do is present an illusion of composure for her father. His chambers were located in the western wing of the house.

Jasper and Lionel’s shared room rested adjacent to their father’s. Daphne’s own room was halfway down the hall, closest to the stairs and to the eastern wing. Daphne wasn’t much fond of the eastern wing of the house. The fact that Mrs. Blanton predominantly chose to reside there had a lot to do with that. It seemed the woman had deliberately positioned herself as far from her husband as possible, even before his whining and wailing began to penetrate the walls of the house. Daphne knocked at her father’s door once, twice, thrice, and received no response. An ungracious thought crossed her mind and for a moment she worried for his well-being, but upon opening the door she found him on the bed, sunk down and snoring. A wash basin sat on the drawers beside the bed. The water within was grey as the light that was trying to stream through the drawn curtains.

To pull said curtains back, Daphne had to navigate the minefield of her father’s work: stacked books, strewn papers, a litter of pens, spilled ink, innumerable maps and geographical routes, documents of trade, artefact prototypes, her father’s yet incomplete model of the HMAS Caledonia whose masts sat abandoned under a film of dust. Reaching the window at last, Daphne threw back the drapes to let in the morning sunshine. Mr. Blanton stirred but did not wake, and so she picked her way back through the dishevelled landscape of the bedroom to sit at his side. “Father? Father, please, it is time to wake.” Her voice was low and soft; she wished to draw him gently from sleep rather than rouse him suddenly. Though his sickness was certainly exaggerated, his heart was less than sturdy. He was not a merchant who appreciated surprises. No merchant revelled in unpredictability. Daphne placed the back of her hand against his forehead and found it clammy, but not worryingly so, for the lack of circulation in the room was contributing to the dampness on his skin.

How long had it been since the windows had been opened? It must have been during the time Mrs. Orville was still in their employment. Daphne was momentarily overwhelmed by a sweeping feeling of guilt. Had she been so focused on the upcoming season that she had, inadvertently, fouled the room? Perhaps her father truly was as ill as he was making it seem. Again, he was close to waking but seemed to be enjoying that dreamy period between consciousness and unconscious. Deciding to allow him a few additional moments of rest, Daphne retrieved the dirty water from beside him and made her way back through the hall and downstairs. She washed and refilled the basin and set about making a small breakfast for her father: toast, a sliced apple and a pot of tea. She would try and get something more substantial for them later–perhaps she would have her brothers fetch fresh eggs from the coop. She was feeling optimistic despite the state of her affairs. It was a new day, which brought new opportunity.

Today could well be the day her father came back to her and rejoined the rest of the world. Armed with her tray of fresh water and light breakfast, she paused on the landing at the strange sounds coming from the eastern wing of the house. Muttering, some bumping about, a barked command. It seemed Mrs. Blanton had risen without nearly as much trouble as her husband. Maybe she finally planned on bidding him good morning, or maybe that was just the optimism speaking again. En route to her father’s chamber, she balanced the tray a moment to knock on the boys’ chamber door. Whether it would be enough to rouse them remained to be seen. She would very much appreciate their assistance, since it had been so lacking of late. Making her way back into her father’s room, she once again navigated through the messy maze before setting the tray of breakfast atop the chest at the foot of the bed.

She placed the bowl of water down beside her father and wet a rag to graze across his forehead, all the while cooing to him gently. Finally, Walter Blanton woke. After a moment of confusion, he smiled into his daughter’s hand. “Good morning, Daffodil.” She set the cloth away having soothed his brow – or rather, wiped it free of dust. “How are you feeling this morning?” “No better, my love. Oh, what a fitful night’s rest I had. I would have been up until sunrise were it not for the exhaustion. I fear I am tired right down to my soul.” He sighed heavily and asked her to mop his brow again.

She complied, studying the pallor of his skin. He was pale from the lack of sunlight, no doubt, and for no other reason. It had been near a fortnight since he had deemed himself worthy of being bed-bound. She pressed him. “I thought you might fancy a stroll through the grounds with me this morning? Surely the fresh air would lift your spirits – it always does mine. The garden is in bloom at the moment.” “If only! But my legs are too weak to lift beyond this bed,” was the woeful reply. “Oh Daffodil, I think this sickness will be my end.” “Hardly likely, dear father.” She leaned back at last, setting the bowl away.

Like a child, he pouted, but she ignored him. “Here, please eat the breakfast I made. It will give you strength.” She retrieved the tray from the end of the bed and placed it over his knees. “You’ll have to sit up or you’ll be sleeping amongst crumbs.” Mr. Blanton released an awful moan and leaned further into his pillows. “I cannot eat! My stomach is wasted. I have no appetite for such things any longer.” Daphne pushed the tray further up, but Mr.

Blanton continued to deny her. Finally, Daphne gave in. She would leave the breakfast to grow cold and stale. “Father, please. You must help yourself if you will not accept my aid.” He moaned again. “I mean not to insult you, my daughter. Believe me! But my heart, it breaks, infects the rest of me.” “Your heart?” “Yes, the wretched thing. Abandonment plagues me.

My heart has made a poison of my body.”’ Daphne was quite clueless as to what exactly the old man was going on about. She sat beside him once more, taking his unwilling hands into hers. “Father, the new season is upon us, and I have chosen to remain by your side. Please, don’t let this be for nothing. I couldn’t stand it if you were not well enough to see what the future holds for me.” She weaved her words carefully, hoping that they would ensnare him, that they would allow him a glimpse into life beyond this chamber. To see his daughter happy and wed? What man would not be motivated by such a thought? Surely he was not so selfish as to have her live out this entire season tending to his bedside? But Mr. Blanton snatched his hands away and howled again, taking his palms to his cheek in a shattering moan. “I take ill so easily! Your words bring me no comfort, Daffodil, for I do worry about you.

But it is no use to me and I can hardly bear to think on it. Please, fetch my wife. I want to see Roberta.” He then launched himself into a coughing fit, working himself into such a state that Daphne found herself having to hit him on the back a fair number of times. Once he had calmed down and his breathing had returned to a normal rate, he asked for Roberta again. “Please, my daughter. Tell her to come to me. I must see her.” Daphne wanted to ask, what comfort it would bring? Knowing what she did of her stepmother’s temperament, at the very least Roberta would find crossing the hallway a chore. That was if Daphne could convince Mrs.

Blanton to leave her room at all. How Daphne despised that her father would ask this of her.

.

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