A Perfect Waltz is my Valentine’s Day short story for 2020. In 2018 I wrote a Christmas story called The Christmas After which dealt with the aftermath of Waterloo. This time, I’m looking at the weeks before the battle, when troops were pouring into Brussels and the surrounding area and the English residents awaited the arrival of Bonaparte and the inevitable battle.
The Duchess of Richmond’s ball has been called the most famous ball in history and has been depicted in fiction and on screen often enough. One day in the future, I’ll write the full story of Paul van Daan and the 110th at Waterloo. This is just a glimpse, and tells the story of two people who meet in the frantic prelude to war. It’s Valentine’s Day, so it’s a romance, but I can’t tell you yet how it will end.
Happy Valentines Day.
Rue St Pierre, Brussels, 1815
“Abigail, what do you think? I’ve received an invitation!”
Abigail Middleton looked up in surprise from the untidy page of arithmetic she was trying to decipher and regarded her employer’s eldest daughter across the shabby schoolroom.
“Lucy, it is lesson time,” she said in tones of mild reproof. “We shall be finished in half an hour and you may tell me all about it during our walk.”
“I shall not be going for a walk, and neither shall you,” Miss Bentley said pertly. “And who cares about boring old arithmetic when I have such exciting news. Henry will not care a jot if his lesson is cut short, and Charlotte will never learn to add up if you keep her here until midnight.”
Abigail reflected that there was a lot of truth in Lucy’s words. She peered heroically once more at Charlotte’s work, sighed, and closed the book.
“Very well, we will finish a little early today. Put your work away, children, and go and get washed and ready to go out.”
“Sarah is taking you to the park today,” Lucy said loftily. “Miss Middleton is accompanying me to do some shopping.”
Abigail said nothing. It was clear that Lucy was big with news, and she was curious. Since their arrival in Brussels at the end of the previous year, the eldest Miss Bentley had received plenty of invitations and she wondered what was special about this one. She watched as the two children put away their books and left the room, then turned enquiring grey eyes onto Lucy.
“Shopping?” she asked.
“Yes, indeed. I am to have new gloves, and ribbons, and a fan and Mama wants me to be measured for two new gowns. Of course they will not be ready for the ball tomorrow, but Mama expects that other invitations will follow. It is the 110th, you know, they are newly arrived and their commanding officer’s wife is holding a ball, and we have received an invitation.”
“Is she?” Abigail said, impressed. “You will have to forgive me, Lucy, since I do not move in military circles. Is this a social triumph?”
“The Duke of Wellington will be present,” Lucy said grandly. “And most of his general officers. Do not laugh at me, Abigail, you know very well that all we have received since we moved to Brussels are invitations to the dullest parties, not at all at the heart of society.”
“Lucy, if there has been a ball full of redcoats that you have not danced at, I shall be very surprised,” Abigail said with a smile. She was fond of her employer’s eldest daughter, who was only ten years her junior, and a very pretty girl with a sunny disposition.
“Oh, regimental dances. It is not the same thing. You know that Charlie and his friends make a point of asking any young female to attend, even though some of them are not at all the thing. And you may say that I am not at all the thing either, but that is not my fault, and I wish to be.”
“I would never say anything of the kind,” Abigail said, reaching out to take Lucy’s hand. “I know it’s been difficult for you, Lucy, and if this invitation is going to introduce you into society properly, then I’m happy for you. But how did it come about, do you know the colonel’s wife?”
“He’s a general. And I’ve never met her. Few people knew her until last summer when she was in London for all the celebrations. It seems that she is rather like me, from a trade family in some provincial town in Yorkshire. Anyway, there is a young officer in the 110th whose name I cannot remember, who was friends with Charlie several years ago in Ireland and he ran into Charlie. Naturally, they got talking, and Charlie told him that his family had come to Brussels and about me, and that is how it comes about that this Lady van Daan has sent an invitation to her ball. It will be very lavish, they have taken the old Palais de St Jean which Mama says the Duchess of Richmond very much wanted to hire, but could not because it was too expensive. Charlie tells me the Duchess is enraged about it, not just because of the house but also because this lady travelled with her husband all through the war in the most unsuitable way, and the Duke of Wellington dotes on her. In fact, Charlie says that there are rumours that she was very, very close to the Duke during the war, which is why her husband is now a general.”
“And that is quite enough of that,” Abigail said in her most repressive governess tones. “Mr Bentley should not be speaking of such things to his seventeen year old sister, and you should certainly not repeat them, especially about a lady of whom you know nothing, and who is being so kind to you.”
“No, it was not well done of me, was it? I hope this lady is very haughty to the Duchess of Richmond, though, since she looks down her nose at me every time she sees me as though I were nothing at all.”
“Is your Mama to come shopping with us?”
“No. But she wishes to speak to you before we go.”
“Very well. Off you go and change your shoes and put on your hat.”
Abigail found Mrs Bentley in her sitting room. She was a plump, pleasant widow in her fifties, and she was the kindest employer Abigail had known in her eight years working as a governess. Abigail had obtained the post through a recommendation from one of her father’s old friends, who knew that Abigail was miserable in her current situation with a rude master, a spiteful mistress and three horribly spoiled children.
“You will like Mrs Bentley,” Lady Carr had written. “She is a very respectable widow, not wealthy, and very kind. Her husband was a major in the army who was killed at Salamanca, and the eldest boy has taken up a commission. Major Bentley was of good family, but married sadly beneath him. Mrs Bentley isn’t accustomed to the best society and is shy of it. It’s a shame for the girls, she’d like to see them well married and she’s done her best. She has spent too much money on expensive dancing masters and drawing masters and I have told her that if she employs you, she will do much better.”
It was clear to Abigail, when she joined the Bentley household, that her duties would extend not only to teaching Henry and Charlotte, but also to acting as a companion and occasional chaperone to Lucy, who was fifteen at the time and just beginning to spread her wings a little in society. The parties she attended were not those of the upper echelons of London society. Abigail was perfectly comfortable escorting Lucy to the houses of merchants, army officers and other professional families and as she grew older, to the occasional public ball.
Charles, the eldest son, was abroad with his regiment arriving home on occasional furlough like a whirlwind, filling the house in Gracechurch Street with noisy young men in red coats. Her brother’s friends gave Lucy ample opportunity to practice flirtation and gave Mrs Bentley an idea when the regiment was posted to Brussels at the end of the war after Napoleon’s abdication.
“We are going to take a house in Brussels while Charlie is stationed there,” she told Abigail. “I’ve an acquaintance who has done the same, and she tells me you wouldn’t believe how cheaply you can live there, with all manner of luxuries that you couldn’t afford at home. Now we’re well enough, as you know, with a bit put aside for the girls to marry and Henry set to join his uncle as midshipman as soon as he’s old enough, but I worry about Lucy. She’ll find a man to marry her, a doctor or lawyer or even some City merchant, right enough, but it seems a waste to me. She’s the prettiest thing, with nice manners and a good heart, and I can’t help feeling if I could introduce her into the right circles, she could do better. I know I’m not up to snuff and there’s no pretending otherwise, but I’d be happy to stay in the background and not spoil her chances. But to do that, you’d need to be willing to come with us and act as her chaperone when she needs one. Please say you’ll come. You come from the same world as them, you know how to go on in society and Lucy likes you. She’ll listen to you more than to me, in truth.”
Abigail had assented and not regretted her decision. In the informality of regimental life, it was not always necessary for her to chaperone Lucy, as long as her brother was her escort. Abigail preferred not to. She had grown up in London, been presented with the other hopeful debutantes, and danced at Almack’s and in all the best houses before her widowed father’s gambling and drinking had finally ruined him. Abigail, at the age of twenty one, had been working out what they could sell and planning a move to a small house a long way from London when Sir Basil Middleton had put an end to his difficulties with a pistol, leaving his daughter alone and adrift amidst the bailiffs and scandal. She had made the move without him, finding a post as governess to a family in Shropshire. Several other positions followed, some worse than others, until the intervention of Lady Carr had taken her to Mrs Bentley and the first feeling of security she had known since her father killed himself.
“You’ve heard from Lucy, I suppose, about the invitation. She’s that excited.”
“She is, ma’am. You wish me to take her shopping, I collect.”
“And to the ball, my dear. She can go with Charles when it’s nothing more than an informal hop, but this is a full ball, she’ll need a chaperone.” Mrs Bentley’s kind eyes studied her. “I know you don’t like to, it must be difficult, bringing back all those memories.”
Abigail was startled. It had never occurred to her that her employer understood the reason for her dislike of going into society. She managed a cheerful smile.
“It has got easier, ma’am. Very few of my old acquaintances really remember me now; the girls who made their debut at the same time are all married. It was a long time ago.”
“It’s a shame,” Mrs Bentley said in forthright tones. “You should have been wed yourself years ago, with children of your own. Still, I’m grateful for your help with mine. I’d be glad if you’d be my deputy in this. I’m not a fool, Miss Middleton, I don’t aim for a grand match or a title for Lucy, she don’t have the dowry. But it’s a respectable portion for all that, I’ve held household all my life to make sure there was money for Charlie’s commissions and the girls marriage. I’d be content with a good man who can provide a comfortable living and a place in society that she don’t have to be ashamed of. I know my origins stand in the way of that, but if she meets the right man, once he knows I’m not encroaching, it shouldn’t matter.”
“I think a man would be very lucky to have you as a mother-in-law, ma’am, you are so understanding,” Abigail said warmly. “Of course I’ll chaperone Lucy, it isn’t onerous, she has such lovely manners. I’ll need to look over my blue gown though, the hem is looking…”
“No need. You’ll find two gowns in your room. They’ll need altering, I was always heavier than you, but you’re very clever with your needle, you’ll be able to give them a new touch.”
Abigail flushed. “Ma’am, I cannot accept…”
“It is part of your job, my dear, you will need to be dressed for it. They are a little out of date, but not too much, I wore both of them in London before I was widowed. Lucy’s chaperone should be respectably attired and I cannot ask you to spend your own money on that. See what you can do with them.”
The two dresses were laid out on Abigail’s narrow bed and she stood looking at them, feeling tears prickling behind her eyes. With everything that had happened over the past years since her father’s death, it was absurd to be so emotional about a gift of two second-hand gowns, but Abigail had not owned anything this lovely since she was twenty and despite the fact that the style was probably ten years out of date, the material was beautiful.
With limited time, Abigail chose the dark green satin. As a debutante she had worn the floating white or pastel muslins of the day, but she preferred more vivid colours, and this suited her rich dark brown hair, bringing out hints of red. Abigail tried it on and then summoned the housemaid to help her pin it into place. As Mrs Bentley had said, she was an excellent needlewoman, enjoying both plain sewing and embroidery, and this was expensive fabric, difficult but satisfying to work with.
The need to fit the gown to her own slender form, gave Abigail the opportunity to alter the shape, bringing it more into line with current fashion. There was no train, it was a ball gown, not an evening dress. Abigail’s old shabby blue had a train which placed her firmly among the chaperones, with no intention of dancing. Still the colour of this was definitely suitable for an older woman and Abbey fashioned a ruffed edge to the neckline to make it much more modest.
With the gown finished, Abigail checked the condition of evening slippers, gloves and fan. All were slightly worn, but nobody would be looking at her that closely. She hung the gown, gave it a long, fond look, then went off to see if Lucy needed any help with her own toilette.
Mrs Bentley had brought her own carriage to Brussels, an old fashioned, lumbering vehicle. Abigail and Lucy alighted outside the Palais de St Jean, a magnificent building close to the Grand Place, which must have cost a small fortune to rent and staff. The unknown daughter of a Yorkshire tradesman must indeed have done very well for herself, and Abigail was not surprised to hear that there was some vicious gossip flying about the tight-knit English community in Brussels. While they waited for war, there was nothing to do but indulge in pointless military speculation, make plans for sudden evacuation should Bonaparte prevail, and gossip about each other. Ladies such as the Duchess of Richmond, saw the Duke of Wellington as their own personal property and were likely to resent any unknown female encroaching on that.
There was the usual receiving line, with a collection of senior officers, resplendent in dress uniform, and Abigail could sense that Lucy was a little overwhelmed. Abigail touched her arm reassuringly and guided her into the line where their hostess waited to greet them. A smart young officer with attractive green eyes and a ready smile asked their names and steered them forward, and Abigail was so engrossed with keeping an eye on her charge that she did not look up until the last minute.
The woman was so unexpected that Abigail’s jaw dropped and she had to close her mouth quickly. She had expected an older woman but this was little more than a girl, probably younger than Abigail and startlingly beautiful with lovely dark eyes and black hair worn in smooth coils on her neck, threaded through with green and gold ribbons. The wife of General Sir Paul van Daan was a surprise in herself, but Abigail’s eyes fastened not on the woman but on the gown she was wearing, in dawning horror. It was like looking in a full length mirror. The neckline was cut lower than Abigail’s, displaying an admirable figure, but the colour and texture of the green satin and the style of both waist and skirt, were almost identical. Abigail heard a little gasp from Lucy, and an unmistakable titter from the woman behind them in line.
Abigail dropped a curtsey, hearing the young officer announce their names. The other woman offered her hand and Abigail touched the fingers and watched Lucy do the same. She knew that she had blushed and waited frantically for the other introductions, so that she could escape to a dark corner and hide.
“Miss Middleton. You and I need to make a plan.”
Abigail looked up and found that Lady van Daan was laughing, her eyes sparkling with amusement. “Ma’am?”
“Either we need to hide in opposite corners of the room, or we need to stand together looking as though we planned this as an amusing jest. I am personally in favour of the latter, I shall come and find you later.” Lady van Daan looked at Lucy and gave a reassuring smile which made Abigail want to embrace her. “Miss Bentley, you look delightful. I met your brother a few days ago, it turns out he is an old friend of Simon here. Oh, you’ve not met, have you? Captain Simon Carlyon, my former brother-in-law, I’ve bullied him into acting as usher for a while. Your brother has not arrived yet, he’s probably fortifying himself for the ordeal at the tavern on the corner. Until he does, I shall hand you over to Captain Kuhn, who will take care of you. Theo, this is Miss Middleton and Miss Bentley. Ladies, Captain Kuhn of the King’s German Legion and my husband’s ADC. Oh, I should probably introduce you to my husband.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, I know my place at these occasions,” Sir Paul said resignedly. “Welcome, ma’am, Miss Bentley. Enjoy the evening.”
Abigail retreated thankfully to recover herself and their escort led them across the room and summoned a waiter with a choice of lemonade or champagne. Abigail took the lemonade and wished she could drink the champagne.
The room was magnificent, high ceilings and glittering chandeliers, with long mirrors along one side of the room which reflected the hundreds of candles to dazzling effect. It was a long time since Abigail had been at a ball like this and she felt a sharp pang remembering how exciting it had been during her debut in London, dancing through the soles of her slippers and falling into bed exhausted in the early hours after attending three parties in one evening. She had no idea that her father’s wealth was based on loans and unpaid bills and that ruin was just around the corner.
Abigail watched the remaining guests arriving and found herself admiring Lady van Daan’s arrangements. There was a small group of officers hovering nearby and Abigail realised they had been placed there deliberately, so that any ladies unaccompanied by a gentleman, could be introduced to a male escort immediately. It was an excellent system, which ensured that every young lady had at least one potential dance partner from the start. Abigail had not seen it done before and wondered if it was Lady van Daan’s own invention. Abigail realised suddenly that she should make an effort with their young German escort, but as she opened her mouth to speak, a voice cut in.
“Lucy!” Lieutenant Bentley said cheerfully. “So glad you could attend. Your servant, Miss Middleton, thank you for bringing her. Luce, come and join our party, I’ll introduce you to some of the new fellows, they’re wild to meet you, you won’t be without a partner all evening, I swear it. Hurry, the dancing is about to start.”
Lucy allowed herself to be towed away, shooting an apologetic look over her shoulder at Abigail. Abigail smiled reassurance and watched her go.
The regimental band was striking up at the end of the room and Abigail saw the Duke, who had been talking to a collection of officers, move across the room to where Lady van Daan was waiting. He spoke briefly to her husband who laughed, kissed his wife’s hand, and relinquished it to the Duke. The little byplay made Abigail smile. There was something about it which felt very different from the polite but superficial exchanges of the fashionable ballroom and she remembered suddenly the story that Lucy had repeated. Abigail did not for a moment believe it, but she did believe that she was watching a warm and close friendship.
With Lucy safely established, Abigail looked around for a quiet corner where she might retreat to watch the dancing and realised that the young German captain was still beside her. He was regarding her thoughtfully from intelligent blue-grey eyes.
“If Mr Bentley was from my regiment, Miss Middleton, I would kick him to remind him of his manners. I am shocked.”
“Oh. Oh no, indeed you should not be. I am sorry, Captain, but you have misunderstood.” Abigail could feel her cheeks grow warm again. She hated having to make this explanation. “I am just the governess. Miss Bentley’s paid companion. It is my duty to retire among the chaperones and be unobtrusive unless she needs me. But thank you for your escort and for the lemonade.”
Kuhn gave a correct little bow. “Thank you for the information, Miss Middleton, but it does not explain rudeness. However, his stupidity is my good fortune. Are you new to Brussels?”
“We have been here for some months,” Abigail said in some surprise. She wondered if the German did not fully understand her circumstances. His English seemed excellent, with a distinct accent but no hesitation, but it was possible that German social customs were different. “Miss Bentley’s mother is my employer. That was what made it so very awkward…”
Abigail broke off, her face burning again. To her surprise, Kuhn laughed aloud. “The gown? Do not trouble yourself, Miss Middleton, I assure you that Lady van Daan will not. And the colour becomes you both very well. Come, I shall find you a chair and we shall watch the dancing together. But wait.”
Kuhn stopped a passing waiter, and took Abigail’s half empty lemonade glass from her hand and placed it on the tray. He took two champagne glassed and handed one to Abigail. “The champagne tastes much better,” he said earnestly.
The chair was a spindly object with a blue velvet seat and gilt painted legs. Abigail allowed her escort to hand her into it ceremoniously. He stood beside her with his hand resting lightly on the back of the chair. It felt odd. Abigail was used to finding a quiet place to wait for Lucy, but this was very conspicuous and gave the impression that she was an honoured guest rather than a governess.
Abigail watched the Duke dancing with his hostess and thought that he looked very light-hearted. She had seen the Duke many times about the city and had attended several military parades. On these occasions he was always accompanied by one of his female friends, and Abigail had heard rumours of many closer liaisons with a variety of women. She wondered if his wife knew about them and if it hurt. Abigail’s father had been careless about his own infidelities and even as a child, Abigail had known how painful and humiliating they had been for her mother before she died. It had given Abigail a hatred of idle gossip. The Duke and Lady van Daan were dancing in the same set as Sir Paul van Daan and Lady Georgiana Lennox, and Abigail was watching the dark girl. She was a very graceful dancer and was conversing easily with the Duke but as they crossed the set, she would flash a smile at her husband and it made Abigail smile. She did not think Lucy’s rumour had an ounce of truth in it.
Captain Theo Kuhn stood beside the governess watching the dancing. He could sense that she was uncomfortable and he wondered if he should follow her instructions and leave her to drift quietly into a corner but the casual bad manners of Lieutenant Bentley had annoyed him. He wondered how often this young woman was subjected to that kind of behaviour, and suspected it was far too often. She was supporting herself in a perfectly respectable way, and from the little he had seen, she had an affectionate relationship with her young charge, but an accident of fortune had left her vulnerable to rudeness from any young jackanapes who imagined himself above her on the social scale.
Theo had not been raised in the strict rules of English society, and although there were rules in his native Hanover, he did not believe his mother would ever have allowed that kind of rudeness to an employee. Theo wondered briefly if Bentley’s parents had ever given him a sound smack when he needed it. It was a shame that he had not served in the Light Division during the war. Somebody else would have administered it for him and the thought pleased Theo.
The music came to an end with what should have been a flourish, and unexpectedly sounded like a strangled cat. There was a murmur of polite amusement around the room and several ladies put their hands over their ears. A voice was raised from the dance floor.
“Sergeant O’Keeffe, who was that?”
“Private Dalton, sir,” the bandmaster announced in tones of disgust. “Being as he’s forgotten everything I ever taught him. Nerves, sir, or so he tells me.”
“Dalton, if you make a noise like that once more, you are mucking out the stables for a week,” the voice said cheerfully. “Carry on, Sergeant. Tunefully, if you can manage it.”
The band struck up again, the opening bars of a country dance, and ladies fanned themselves while gentlemen went in search of their partners. Theo looked down at Miss Middleton and saw that the little exchange had made her smile. It made a great difference to her rather serious face and she looked suddenly younger.
“Would you care to dance, Miss Middleton?” he asked, on impulse.
She looked up, astonished. “Me? Oh – Captain, that is so kind of you, but I may not. I am not sure if you have perfectly understood my situation.”
“I assure you I have, ma’am, that obnoxious boy made it very clear. I do not, however, understand why it should stop me dancing with you. You have no other duties at present, Miss Bentley is happily engaged to dance with Mr Longworth, and I do not have a partner for this dance.”
The woman’s face softened into a singularly sweet smile. “Thank you, Captain. But you should go and find one. You have more than done your duty by me. Join your friends, I will do very well.”
“I am happy here,” Theo said. “If you do not wish to dance, we shall converse. Will you tell me a little about yourself?”
He saw immediately that he had blundered. Abigail Middleton coloured and dropped her eyes. “There is really nothing to tell,” she said in colourless tones. “I was left an orphan, my father’s affairs were in disorder and I was obliged to support myself by teaching. I have a very good situation with Mrs Bentley, I am fond of Lucy and the children. And Lieutenant Bentley is not that bad, just a little careless sometimes.”
“I have offended. I offer my apologies, ma’am, I did not intend to. How long have you worked for Mrs Bentley?”
The girl replied reluctantly, but Theo was very patient, and after a few minutes she recovered both her complexion and her calm demeanour and talked more freely. Eventually, she said:
“I am talking too much of myself, sir. I know the rules of polite society still. What of you? How is it that an officer of the King’s German Legion serves as ADC to an English general?”
“It is a long story. I did not intend to be a soldier, I trained to be a doctor, since my brother was to inherit my family lands. But then the French invaded and both my father and my brother were killed in battle and my mother died soon afterwards. Grief, I think. I was very angry for a long time. I joined the KGL as a common soldier. I just wanted to kill the French. Have I shocked you?”
“Not at all,” the girl said warmly. “I think it was very brave of you. You must have been very young.”
“I was twenty.”
“Did you never think of returning to your original profession?”
Theo shook his head. “No. Lady van Daan tried to persuade me to do so, there was a shortage of good army surgeons. But I could not bring myself to treat the French wounded. I was very young and so angry. I think I would feel differently now.”
The girl said something that he did not hear. Theo bent closer to try to hear her then looked over at the band, irritated. “It is so noisy here. There is a sofa just over there. Since we are to talk and not dance, shall we move to where it is quieter?”
Theo saw her hesitate, but then she nodded. Like him, he realised she had become interested in the conversation. It was impossible to have a rational discourse in a ballroom, but there was a long velvet sofa just outside the ballroom in the elaborate hallway. It was empty. Theo saw her pause when she realised where he was leading her and guessed her thoughts.
“You can still see and be seen in the ballroom,” he said gravely. “And forgive me, but I thought you might feel more comfortable here.”
After a moment, she sat down composedly and indicated that he should do the same. “I do,” she admitted. “I prefer to remain inconspicuous at these affairs. And besides, there is still the matter of this gown. Such bad luck.”
“You look very charming in it, ma’am.”
“You are very kind, Captain. How did you come to be with Sir Paul?”
“My battalion was attached to the third brigade of the Light Division, which he commanded. We took heavy losses at Badajoz and there were not enough officers so he promoted some men from the ranks. When he was promoted to Major-General, he wished to have an ADC from each of the nations under his command, so he chose one German, one English and one Portuguese officer. I was very fortunate.”
“Perhaps in that, Captain, but not…”
“Captain Kuhn, are you neglecting your duties?”
Theo rose quickly and the girl did the same. Although he was not touching her, he could feel her entire body tense, and he wanted to swear. It was rather like coaxing some timid creature out of a hole, only to see it scuttle back at a sudden noise. “No, sir, I was keeping Miss Middleton company as she had no escort.”
Sir Paul van Daan grinned. “It’s a good excuse, lad, but not good enough. I wasn’t looking for you anyway. Miss Middleton, my lady has sent me to ask you to join our party, since you seem to be alone.”
“No,” the woman said. Suddenly, she looked and sounded very much younger, and Theo had a sudden glimpse of the girl she must have been before the death of her father left her alone and penniless. “Sir Paul, that is so kind, but it would be so embarrassing. Please.”
“Because of the colour of your gown, or because you’re a governess?”
“Both,” Abigail Middleton said fervently.
“If you don’t come with me she’ll come to get you herself. Ask Captain Kuhn, he’s known her for years. As for your occupation, think nothing of it. My first wife was a governess when I met her, it’s perfectly respectable. Take my arm. I think you’re a brave woman if you put your mind to it.”
Theo realised he was holding his breath. Finally, she nodded, still looking terrified, and gave Sir Paul her hand. He placed it on his arm and looked at Theo. “Are you staying here?”
“I rather thought not. You shouldn’t, either. Wellington’s over there flirting outrageously with a twenty year old, it’s a disgrace. Come and look disapprovingly at him, you do it better than I do.”
“Thank you, sir,” Theo said with considerable restraint. He was used to his general, who was easily bored at large social events and tended to become more outrageous in order to amuse himself. Theo generally found it very funny but he was not sure that the general had quite grasped how terrified Abigail Middleton was.
Anne van Daan was at the centre of a group of mainly young people, including Lucy and her brother. Abigail had no chance to speak to them, as her hostess was smiling and beckoning.
“Miss Middleton, I hope Captain Kuhn has been taking good care of you. I have done my dancing duty for a while, although presently I am going to take my life in my hands and waltz with the Duke.”
One of the young women laughed aloud. “Ma’am, you wrong him. He is not that bad.”
“He is improving, Lady Georgiana, but he needs some work. Miss Middleton, I am glad to meet you properly. Come and talk to me.”
She drew Abigail to one side and Abigail waited for her to speak, unable to think of a single thing to say.
“You look terrified,” Lady van Daan said, with alarming frankness. “I’m so sorry, I can see how awkward you are finding this. So ridiculous over the colour of a dress. It’s a very lovely colour though, isn’t it?”
Despite herself, Abigail smiled. “Yes, ma’am. But I am sorry. I couldn’t have known…”
“Oh don’t be silly, I don’t care at all. I’ve inspected you very carefully and I’ve decided it suits us equally well. But I like the cut of yours better, did you sew it yourself?”
“I thought so. My friend Keren is an excellent needlewoman and I’ve always envied her so much, I haven’t the patience. Your young charge is very sweet, she’s a great success with our officers.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Her Mama was so grateful for the invitation. Lucy has not had the opportunity to go into society as much as she would like, she is enjoying this very much.”
“She is very well-mannered, you’ve done an excellent job. How long have you been with the family?”
The conversation was blissfully matter-of-fact. Abigail talked of the Bentley family and Lady van Daan spoke of her own children and step-children, making Abigail laugh aloud at some of her anecdotes. The group around them ebbed and flowed. Lady van Daan went to dance several times and Abigail found herself talking to the general and some of his officers. Lucy was constantly on the dance floor. Time flew past and Abigail was surprised to realise that it was supper time and the German captain was beside her again.
“Miss Middleton. May I take you into supper? Miss Bentley is with Lady Georgiana Lennox, and her party, they will take good care of her.”
Abigail looked up into the clear blue-grey eyes and felt unexpectedly brave. “Captain Kuhn – thank you. I should be delighted.”
“Afterwards, will you dance with me?”
Abigail shook her head regretfully. “It would not be right, sir. I wish I could.”
Kuhn studied her for a moment. Suddenly, his grave expression broke into a broad smile. Abigail had been unable to decide earlier if he was handsome, but she decided abruptly that he was.
“Very well. We shall begin with supper. There will be other times to dance.”
There was a magic to the following weeks and Abigail had to keep reminding herself that war was coming and the magic would soon end. Miss Bentley’s successful appearance at the Van Daan ball heralded a flood of invitations. The English community of Brussels, who had thus far held up their noses, were suddenly keen to invite Lady van Daan’s young protégé, and where Lucy went, Abigail was obliged to go. She attended balls, receptions, routs and informal dances. There were military reviews, where the Duke inspected his mismatched army with no visible concern and outdoor picnics where Abigail panicked suddenly when her charge went missing for half an hour, reappearing on the arm of Lieutenant the Honourable Thomas Oakley of the 110th with flushed cheeks and a rather dreamy smile. Apart from that one lapse, thankfully unobserved by most people, Lucy behaved very well.
The English community in Brussels had been small and close-knit but as the weeks passed, more and more troops began to arrive, and accommodation was difficult to find. Officers and their families were packed into every possible hotel room and their men were crammed into already overcrowded billets.
Brussels was a city on a grand scale, and Abigail had come to love the bustle of the narrow streets, which opened up suddenly into broad well-designed squares surrounded by spectacular buildings, soaring above the cobblestones. It was a bustling, self-important little city but with corners of quiet beauty still; graceful churches hidden away in leafy churchyards and small parks with fountains playing under shady trees. There was so much to see, and Abigail found herself forgetting the constraints of her position. She was not really needed to chaperone Lucy so much, but she found that the notes of invitation included her name as a matter of course and she tried not to worry about what would happen if somebody recognised her and remembered the scandal of her father’s disgrace.
Abigail thought that there was a frantic gaiety among the Allied officers, particularly the younger ones. She met several young couples who were newly married, their nuptials hastened by the prospect of war. So many of them had waited through the long years of the war in Portugal and Spain and Abigail did not blame them for snatching at happiness while they could. She grew very fond of some of the young officers and tried not to think of what might happen in the coming weeks. The prospect of a battle assumed a new horror now that she knew some of the men who would fight and possibly die in it.
The Duke of Wellington attended all social events with an air of immovable calm. Rumours of the French advance flew around the ballrooms and reception rooms but Wellington behaved as though he was preparing for a review in Hyde Park rather than a renewal of hostilities against Bonaparte.
There were reviews and parades of the various sections of the army on an almost daily basis, and Abigail took Lucy to watch as the Duke made a formal inspection of two British battalions, the 110th and the 112th in the park. Abigail was not deceived by her charge’s sudden enthusiasm for military matters. The trim, dark haired form of the Honourable Thomas Oakley of the 110th eighth company was very much in evidence and Lucy did not take her eyes from him. Abigail hoped that Lucy was not about to have her heart broken. Oakley was a younger son but came from a good family and Abigail was not sure that his family would accept the connection. Still, she approved Lucy’s taste; Oakley was a good-looking youth with charming manners.
“What do you think, Miss Middleton?”
Abigail turned, feeling an involuntary lift of her heart. “Captain Kuhn. Good morning, sir. Are you asking my opinion of the troops?”
“Goodness, I have no idea.” Abigail surveyed the neat ranks of men. “They look a lot smarter than the Dutch troops at the last review I attended. And…they move very well. Does that make sense?”
Theo was smiling. “You have a good eye, ma’am. I know that I am biased, but I think these are the best trained men in the army. Certainly this army, which is not very well trained at all.”
Abigail glanced up at him. “I have heard it said that the Duke is worried about a lack of well-trained, well-disciplined troops, sir.”
“That will be the English saying that, since they believe that no troops other than their own can possible fight well.”
Abigail laughed. “It is,” she admitted. “But I collect you will tell me that the German troops are the best.”
“You mean the Prussians? I do not know, I have never fought with them. The King’s German Legion, on the other hand, will match any British regiment in the world. And I had a high opinion of the Portuguese troops I fought with also. The Dutch I do not know so well either. But I trust the Duke to know his business, he will do the best he can with them. If only we had more time.”
Abigail was watching him. Over the past weeks she had spent a lot of time with Theo Kuhn and she had come to like him very much. There was something very steady about the young German and she could understand why he occupied such a trusted position on his general’s staff. She had a sudden sense of something else behind the intelligent blue-grey eyes this morning, and lowering her voice so that she could not be heard by Lucy or any of the other civilians watching the parade, she said:
“Will it be soon?”
Captain Kuhn met her eyes for a long moment. Then he took her arm and steered her out of the crowd to a wooden bench under a spreading oak tree.
“Bonaparte is approaching the frontier,” he said. “He should cross it within the next few days. We have all been placed on alert.”
Abigail felt sick. She looked over at the rows of men, their red coats bright against the green field with sunlight glinting off braid and badges and weapons. “How soon?”
“Sir Paul thinks a week. No more.”
“A week? We have been invited to a ball next week, Captain. Lucy is very excited. The Duchess of Richmond did not deign to notice her for months, but thanks to your general’s wife, she has struck up a friendship with Lady Georgiana Lennox, and is suddenly quite the thing.”
“Lieutenant Oakley certainly thinks so.”
“I think his enthusiasm is reciprocated.”
The captain looked at her intently. “Is it?”
Abigail was surprised. “Yes,” she said. “I mean, she is very young, and something of a flirt. But this is the first time that I have known her to fix her interest on a gentleman in this way. Why do you ask?”
“May I trust your discretion?”
“I happen to know, through my good friend Captain Fenwick, who commands the eighth, that Mr Oakley has written home to his family about Miss Bentley, expressing his desire to introduce her to his Mama.”
“Oh. Oh dear Lord.”
“I believe he has also asked permission to call on Mrs Bentley tomorrow.”
“Oh my. I was concerned that he might be trifling with her.”
Kuhn laughed aloud. “Captain Fenwick was concerned that she might be trifling with him.”
“Thank heavens that is one concern we may put to rest. But I begin to think that this ball may not take place.”
“The Duke has declared that it will, ma’am, and I have seldom known him to be wrong. But after that, I am afraid that we may be leaving you for a while. And I am very sorry that despite my many attempts, I have not yet persuaded you to dance with me.”
Abigail dropped her eyes. She had realised, over these past weeks, that Captain Kuhn possessed a particularly attractive pair of eyes. They were a clear blue-grey, the colour of still water, but there was nothing cold about them. She liked the way they crinkled when he smiled, and she particularly liked the way they sparkled when he was amused. He laughed a lot. Abigail had always gained the impression that German people were very serious but she realised that it was nonsense. Probably most of the things she had heard about other nationalities were equally nonsensical.
“I do not dance at all, Captain. You know why.”
“I know that you have given me a reason. I think it is foolish, and that annoys me, because you are not a foolish woman, you have simply listened to foolish ideas.”
Abigail looked up. “You do not know everything about me, sir.”
“I know more than you think I do, Miss Middleton.”
Abigail’s heart skipped a beat. “Such as?”
“I know that you are an orphan because your father took his own life rather than face up to the mistakes he made. In doing so, he left you alone and penniless and unprotected. I know that you have worked hard to support yourself since then. I know that I respect you for that. I also know that I wish there was no war looming, so that I could take some time to persuade you that you should not be afraid. You are braver than he was.”
Abigail was appalled. “Who told you? Does everybody know?”
“The Duke told Sir Paul. He told me, since he has eyes in his head to see that I seek you out whenever I can.”
Abigail felt colour flood her face. She was not sure which part of that extraordinary sentence to address first and she chose, eventually, to address the least important part.
“He knew your father. He says you danced with him twice at a ball in London, when he was very unhappy and that you made him smile.”
Abigail was silent. Her companion did not speak either and they sat for a long time. Eventually, Abigail said:
“I cannot believe he remembered that, I was so sure he would not even notice me.”
“Is that why people have been so willing to accept me here? Is it because of the Duke?”
“I think probably, yes. Also Lady van Daan has taken a liking to you. She says you are a sensible woman. Do you remember him?”
“Of course. Sir Arthur Wellesley. It was my debut. I was seventeen and I danced every dance. I was surprised he asked me because I knew he was married. There was some kind of inquiry going on.”
“The Cintra inquiry.”
“Yes. I was so young, I knew nothing of it and cared less. All I remember is that he was a very handsome older man who seemed to think me pretty.”
“He was right,” Kuhn said in matter-of-fact tones. “You are pretty. And you should know that I now feel jealous of the Duke of Wellington, which is very embarrassing. He has danced with you, and I have not. I shall not give up all hope, however. There is still, after all, the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. Come, let us join the others.”
On June 13th, two days before the ball, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the frontier and a shudder of fear ran through the British community in Brussels. In the privacy of her room, Abigail held Lucy in her arms as she wept. During the past week, the Honourable Thomas Oakley had received a letter from his family in London and had returned to the Bentleys’ rented house and formally asked Mrs Bentley for her permission to pay his addresses to her daughter. Permission was given, and the betrothal was an open secret to the young couple’s friends. Abigail found herself praying almost angrily. She could not bear the thought that Lucy’s happiness might be shattered by some careless shot from a French gun and she wished both armies to the devil.
With Lucy accompanied by both her brother and her fiancé there was no real need for a chaperone. Abigail had forced herself to mention this to Mrs Bentley who smiled indulgently.
“Of course you must go, you had an invitation, didn’t you? It will make you laugh to hear that I had one too. Me, plain Eliza Bentley invited to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. My Jimmy would have laughed until he cried. It’ll be Thomas’ doing of course, he’s the soul of courtesy and treats me like the great lady I’m not. I’ve sent my apologies, I’ve no wish to make a fool of myself apeing my betters. But…”
“They are not your betters, ma’am. I’ve met nobody here better than you.”
“Well thank you, child, that’s kind of you. But you know what I mean. Still, it puts me in mind of something. Come with me.”
The gown was laid out on the day bed in Mrs Bentley’s dressing room and Abigail caught her breath when she saw it. “Ma’am, it’s beautiful. Was this yours?”
“Well it was. A long time ago, when I was a lot slimmer than I am now. Major Bentley used to like me to dress fine, and I could carry it then, though I do say so myself. It’s no use to me now, and my Lucy don’t want it and she couldn’t wear it anyway, she’s too young and she don’t have your colouring. Do you think you could fix it up, bring it up to date, like you did with the other two?”
“Yes,” Abigail said, running her hand lightly over the rich blue material. “There’s so much fabric in the skirt, I can easily make it narrower and raise up the waist. Ma’am, you’re too generous to me. I shouldn’t.”
“Yes, you should, my dear. I insist that you do.” Mrs Bentley met Abigail’s eyes steadily. “I can’t say this to Lucy, but you’re old enough to understand. They’re going to march out to fight very soon. Some of the men are already being sent up towards the French lines. It might not happen tomorrow or the next day; Thomas tells me that the Duke has told the Duchess she shall have her ball. But privately, he’s told Lady van Daan not to arrange the reception she was planning the following week. They’re going to fight.”
“I know, ma’am.”
“Some of them won’t come back. Please God it won’t be Charlie, or Thomas, or your young German gentleman. But in case it is…”
“Ma’am, he is not mine.”
“He should be,” Mrs Bentley said firmly. “Dance with him, Abigail. If you don’t, you might regret it for the rest of your life.”
Lieutenant Oakley dined with the Bentleys on the evening of the ball, along with Charles Bentley and several of his friends. Abigail had begun to join the family at dinner as a matter of course, and she had almost stopped feeling awkward about it. During the past week she had tried hard not to spend too much time thinking about Theo Kuhn. His declaration of interest had been so casual and matter-of-fact that she found herself wondering if she had misunderstood. Abigail almost wished he had not spoken. They were all affected by the climate of heightened emotion brought on by imminent battle, and although the young German ADC gave the impression of having his feet firmly on the ground, Abigail could not bring herself to hope that he might be serious. Still, she looked forward to seeing him at the ball with an ache of longing that she realised she had been feeling for weeks.
The house hired by the Duchess of Richmond was not nearly as grand as the Palais de St Jean and was not in such an excellent part of town, but it possessed a good sized ballroom. The room was already crowded when Abigail arrived, and they waited in line to greet their hostess. Ahead of her, Abigail saw Lady van Daan, dressed in black lace, and the general’s wife touched the skirt of her gown, her eyes on Abigail’s blue, and gave a conspiratorial grin and a nod. The ballroom was on the ground floor, connected to the rest of the house by an ante room. It was draughty and Abigail shivered in her thin wrap.
“Lady Georgiana tells me that the house used to belong to a coach-builder and he used this room to put carriages in, which is why it is so big,” Lucy whispered. “It’s very useful though.”
“Did the Duchess have it decorated?” Abigail asked, regarding the wallpaper, which was adorned with roses.
“No, that was already done.”
Abigail had spent the afternoon at her window, watching troops making their way to their muster points. Listening to Lucy’s chatter, she wondered if her young charge had not understood the significance of the sudden increase in activity, but as they moved into the ballroom, Thomas remained talking to the Duchess for a moment. Lucy waited, her eyes on him, and Abigail felt her throat tighten at the expression in the younger girl’s eyes. Lucy knew very well what was about to happen, she realised, and her artless gaiety was a gift to Lieutenant Oakley on his last evening with her. Abigail was fiercely proud of her. She slipped her arm about Lucy’s waist.
“You are doing very well,” she said softly.
Lucy turned to look at her. “So are you,” she said. “Now go and find him. Oh, but I see that there is no need.”
Theo had been watching for Abigail Middleton ever since he had arrived. He was without Sir Paul van Daan, who had been about to step into the carriage when a message had arrived for him. His commanding officer had read it quickly and turned to his wife.
“You’ll need to go on ahead. I’ll be there very soon, I promise you, but he wants to speak to me.”
“Is there news?”
“I think news is coming in all the time, girl of my heart. If you’re asking if it will be soon, then yes. The ball may be cut rather short, to be honest, but the Duke wants it to carry on and intends to make an appearance. I don’t know any more, but I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
The ballroom was crowded, but it was the strangest ball that Theo had ever attended. There was a heavy atmosphere, as small groups of people huddled together, discussing rumour and news, while some of the younger officers danced as though movement could drive away the spectre of battle. More people were arriving. Theo saw his commander’s wife who was escorted by Captain Manson, and further down the receiving line, he saw Abigail.
She was wearing a new gown. Abigail had been very frank with Theo about her straitened circumstances, and of her employer’s generous gift of two ball gowns. He had watched her for weeks, appearing in the same, slightly shabby day dresses and evening gown and he thought she looked beautiful in them. Theo suspected he knew her entire wardrobe by now, so he supposed that Mrs Bentley had made another gift and silently blessed her for it. The deep blue silk was trimmed with silver embroidery at the hem and Miss Middleton had allowed vanity to overcome propriety for once and had curled her hair. It framed her face enchantingly and made her look several years younger.
Theo weaved his way through the crowd, arriving beside her just as Lieutenant Thomas Oakley rejoined his betrothed. Oakley gave a broad grin.
“Captain Kuhn. What a surprise. Last person I expected to see here, sir. Lucy, they’re just forming up a set, will you dance with me?”
Theo met the bright, laughing eyes of his junior and shook his head. “Move quickly, Mr Oakley.”
“On my way, sir.”
Theo watched the young couple go and then turned to Abigail. “Miss Middleton. That gown is new and you look very beautiful in it.
“Captain Kuhn, thank you. It was a gift.”
“I had guessed as much. You have styled your hair differently. It is also very lovely.”
Abigail laughed aloud. “Soon you will be inspecting my gloves and my shoes, sir.”
“I do not need to. The small stain on the left glove, which you cover up by the way you hold your hand, is still there.”
Abigail stared at him, wide eyed. “I cannot believe you noticed that.”
“I spend a great deal of my time watching you, Miss Middleton.”
“Is it to be tomorrow?”
“I believe so. We may have to march out tonight. My general is with the Duke now, but they will both be here later.”
“Oh no,” Abigail said softly. “Poor Lucy. And so many others, having to say farewell to sons and husbands and fathers. I am not sure that I can bear it.”
“You are among the fortunate ladies here tonight, Miss Middleton.”
The grey eyes lifted to his. “That is both unfair and untrue. I care about all the officers I have met since coming to Brussels. I care about Lieutenant Bentley for his mother and sister’s sake and about Lieutenant Oakley for Lucy’s sake. And I care about you because…because I like you.”
Theo could feel himself colouring. He thought of a number of very glib responses, but she had been unexpectedly honest and he wanted to honour that. “Thank you. I did not deserve that, given that I was trying to find a way to make you say it. I am very sorry.”
“Please don’t be. You should have nothing to be sorry for tonight. I wish there was something I could do.”
“Miss Middleton, I wish to spend this evening with you. That is something you can do.”
“That is no hardship, sir.”
Theo led her around the room, occasionally stopping to talk to friends. She remained beside him and for the first time he felt no resistance in her. She allowed him to introduce her and joined easily in the various conversations. The crowd ebbed and flowed, the dancers came and went. Her hand was on his arm and Theo concentrated on how good that felt.
There was a break in the dancing, and some of the Highlanders came in, to give a display of Scottish reels. Theo stood beside Abigail, watching her face more than the dancers. She applauded as they finished, turning towards him.
“That was wonderful, they are so quick and agile. And I love the music.”
“So do I. Are you enjoying the evening, Miss Middleton?”
“Yes. And no. I do not want it to end in the way it will end. I do not want you to go and fight.”
Theo was quiet for a moment, trying to decide what to say, but there was something about this evening that seemed to make conventions and rules and polite society unimportant, so he said what he wanted to say.
“All of us?”
The girl looked at him steadily and Theo felt his heart turn over. “You,” she said, with unexpected finality. “You, Captain.”
The band struck up, the first bars of a waltz. Theo did not take his gaze from her. “Do you waltz, Miss Middleton?”
“I never learned,” Abigail said regretfully. “It was not danced in England at the time of my debut, and I have never had the opportunity.”
“Would you like to learn?”
Theo saw her eyes widen and smiled. Taking her hand, he led her out of the ballroom and through a door into a plain room with no decoration and no furniture. Abigail looked around her in surprise and Theo laughed.
“Lady Georgiana informs me it was part of the original coach building workshop. They do not use it and it is rather cold. But we can still hear the music very clearly. Come here. Listen to the music and count the beats first, there is a count of three.”
“I know. I have watched Lucy waltz many times.”
“Good, then you have the count. Now, step forward. Give me your hand. I hold it here, and you place your other hand here. My hand rests upon your waist, here. Is that acceptable?”
“Excellent. Now, we begin. I step forward with my left foot. You step back with your right. Good. Now I step sideways with my right foot and you follow with your left. Now feet together. Now I step back with my right and you…yes, you have it. Gut, sehr Gut. Sideways. And feet together. And again.”
They moved steadily, slowly travelling around the room. After a few turns, Theo felt her pick up the steps and then the music, and suddenly they were dancing as he had imagined for weeks. The room was spacious and she was light and quick in his arms. Occasionally she lost time and stumbled, and Theo stopped and corrected her hold and smiled down into her eyes.
The waltz music ended and was replaced by a quadrille, but Theo ignored it and she made no protest. They waltzed on to music that played in their heads, her face flushed with exertion and her eyes bright with enjoyment of the swirling moves of the dance. Eventually she was becoming breathless and Theo stopped reluctantly, clicked his heels and bowed.
“Thank you, Miss Middleton, that was the best waltz I have ever danced. I have wanted so much to dance it with you.”
“Oh. Captain, thank you, I have always wanted to learn. It is so fast. And so flowing. I love it.”
“Something of me that I leave behind with you.”
He saw her cheeks become even more red. “Don’t,” she said. “Don’t say it. I can’t bear to think about it.”
“I need to think about it. Because…|
There was the sound of applause from the doorway, making them both jump. Theo spun around reaching for her hand, and was relieved and alarmed to see his commanding officer walking into the room, clapping his hands.
“Bravo, Miss Middleton, you’re a natural dancer. And Theo, you’re as good at teaching dancing as short order drills.”
“How long were you there, sir?”
“A few minutes. I’m sorry to interrupt, it was beautiful to watch. My wife saw you slip away.”
“I’m sorry, Sir Paul,” Abigail said, somewhat breathlessly. “I’m afraid…”
“Don’t, lass. Not tonight. Theo, the Duke has just arrived. He’s going to take Lady Georgiana into supper later, but we won’t stay much after that. Some of the officers are already leaving to join their regiments. Others will stay a little longer, there will be more dancing.”
“Do you need me to leave, sir?”
“Not unless it takes you three hours to pack and dress. Which it won’t, I know you’ll have left your kit ready and your uniform laid out. Stay for a while. I’m going in to dance with my wife and we’ll pretend that it might not be the last time we do it.”
“Is it bad, sir?”
“It might be. Wellington is worried, it seems Bonaparte has outsmarted us. He’s moving up to Quatre Bras, and he’s not where we hoped he’d be. The Duke wants everything to remain calm, with no sense of panic. I’ve given my orders, our officers will stay until after supper then I want them back to their billets, changed and out with their men. If any one of them turns up in dress uniform looking like a Bond Street beau, he’ll go into battle with my boot print on his arse. My apologies, ma’am, for my language.”
“Sir, should I…?”
“You’ve a couple of hours, Captain. Make the most of it, will you? I certainly intend to. Miss Middleton, I genuinely hope we’ll meet again after this is over. My wife assures me that she hopes to count you among her friends, which is no small honour. Excuse me, I must go to her. Theo, get her back into the ballroom, you can’t be out here alone with her, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and she’ll have to live with it. You know what people are like.”
Theo understood and felt both sick and grateful. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
The rest of the night was a blur. Theo kept her close by him, led her into supper, and fussed over her food, the correct placement of her napkin and the filling of her champagne glass while his brain screamed in protest that he must leave so soon, when she was not ready to hear what he wanted to say. He had hoped to give her time to get over her scruples, but time had run out and he had never been so afraid to go into battle because he had never before had this much to lose.
Afterwards, the Duke and Sir Paul disappeared off with the Duke of Richmond in search of a map, and the remaining ball guests drifted about in bewildered misery. Around the room there were women crying and men holding them close as they would never normally have done in this public a setting. Some of the officers were leaving, but the band played on, and a few hardy souls continued to dance, as though dancing could chase away the threat of battle and death.
“Theo, do you need a waltz?”
Theo turned quickly to see his commander’s lovely dark eyed wife studying him steadily. He supposed her husband had told her and he felt passionately grateful for their small kindness in the middle of tragedy.
“Ja,” he said baldly.
“Stay there, I’ll arrange it.”
The next dance should not have been a waltz, and Theo saw people glance at each other in surprise and then shrug, accepting it on this extraordinary evening. He turned to Abigail and saw, to his joy, her heart in her eyes, looking up at him.
“Please,” he said. “It is all the time I have now.”
“Yes. Of course. I hope I don’t make a dreadful mull of it.”
She was perfect, and Theo sensed that she had surprised herself. They whirled about the floor among other couples, and he saw tears on many cheeks. Hers remained dry, her eyes steady on his, until the music ended, and he stepped back and bowed.”
“Thank you, Miss Middleton. A perfect waltz. Whatever happens next, I will remember that dance to the end of my days.”
“That is not good enough for me, Captain. I want more than a waltz.”
Theo felt his heart lift and suddenly he was able to smile again. “So do I.”
“I cannot instruct you to come back, since it may be beyond your control. All I can do is tell you that when you do come back, I will be here waiting for you. Theo, please come back. I’ve never dared to want anything this much before.”
Theo felt his heart break. He caught her hand and drew her quickly outside, through the ante room, past several crying family groups and outside into a small tangled garden where it was too dark to see her face but at least they were alone. He reached for her, took her into his arms, and felt her lean into him as if she belonged there.
“I love you,” he said furiously. “I love you, and I have no time. All those years through the war, and time did not matter. And now I have minutes only to tell you how I feel.”
“I love you too. Theo, don’t. Don’t talk as if this is the end. Men come back. Most men come back. Please come back.”
Theo looked down into her eyes and bent to kiss her. They clung together desperately for a long time. Finally he raised his head.
“Liebling, I need to go.”
“I know. I love you. Don’t feel bad. Don’t think of me.”
“I will think of you.”
“Don’t let it distract you. Think about your job, do it well and come back. I will be here.”
Theo kissed her again, knowing that it could never be enough. “Come,” he said, and could hear his voice husky with tears. “Wave me off.”
Abigail stood waving at the doorway until the last of them were out of sight. Most of the guests had left and Mrs Bentley’s carriage was waiting in the inky darkness. Lucy stood beside her, tears still falling, and Abigail put her arms about her and held her close.
“Are you all right?”
Abigail turned. Lady van Daan was there, wrapped warmly in a thick cloak. “We are. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Go home now. It will be a long day tomorrow, I’ve a meeting early with some of the medical staff. Look, it’s up to you, but we’ll need help. Nurses, or even just people to bring them water and direct them to the nearest hospital.”
Abigail felt her heart lift at the prospect of doing something useful. “Please find me, ma’am. I want to help.”
“You’ll hear from me tomorrow, then.” Lady van Daan’s dark eyes studied them through the darkness. “This blasted ball, it has increased the drama. I told the Duke it should have been cancelled.”
“I’m so glad it wasn’t, ma’am.”
The other woman smiled. “That sounds as though at least one of our officers had a very good evening, which makes me happy. Goodnight, Miss Bentley. Miss Middleton. Try to get some sleep, if that is even possible with reveille being sounded in the streets all night. I hope they’re not sounding that bugle under our windows, Paul is a fairly good shot.”
She moved away to where her escort stood waiting, and Abigail put her arm around Lucy and steered her into the carriage. As it rattled over the cobblestones for the short journey home, Abigail paid no attention to the marching troops on every street, or the long mournful call of the bugle. There was waltz music playing in her head, a memory that warmed her heart, and brought dreams of a shared future.