Authors: Julian Fellowes
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To my wife, Emma,
nothing in my life
would be quite possible.
he past, as we have been told so many times, is a foreign country where things are done differently. This may be true—indeed it patently
true when it comes to morals or customs, the role of women, aristocratic government, and a million other elements of our daily lives. But there are similarities, too. Ambition, envy, rage, greed, kindness, selflessness, and, above all, love have always been as powerful in motivating choices as they are today. This is a story of people who lived two centuries ago, and yet much of what they desired, much of what they resented, and the passions raging in their hearts were only too like the dramas being played out in our own ways, in our own time…
It did not look like a city on the brink of war; still less like the capital of a country that had been torn from one kingdom and annexed by another barely three months before. Brussels in June 1815 could have been
, with busy, colorful stalls in the markets and brightly painted, open carriages bowling down the wide thoroughfares, ferrying their cargoes of great ladies and their daughters to pressing social engagements. No one would have guessed that the emperor Napoléon was on the march and might encamp by the edge of the town at any moment.
None of which was of much interest to Sophia Trenchard as she pushed through the crowds in a determined manner that rather belied her eighteen years. Like any well-brought-up young woman, especially in an alien land, she was accompanied by
her maid, Jane Croft, who, at twenty-two, was four years older than her mistress. Although if either of them could be said to be protecting the other from a bruising encounter with a fellow pedestrian, it would be Sophia, who looked ready for anything. She was pretty, very pretty even, in that classic blonde, blue-eyed English way, but the cut-glass set of her mouth made it clear that this particular girl would not need Mama’s permission to embark on an adventure. “Do hurry, or he’ll have left for luncheon and our journey will have been wasted.” She was at that period of her life that almost everyone must pass through, when childhood is done with and a faux maturity, untrammeled by experience, gives one a sense that anything is possible until the arrival of real adulthood proves conclusively that it is not.
“I’m going as fast as I can, miss,” murmured Jane, and, as if to prove her words, a hurrying Hussar pushed her backward without even pausing to learn if she was hurt. “It’s like a battleground here.” Jane was not a beauty, like her young mistress, but she had a spirited face, strong and ruddy, if more suited to country lanes than city streets.
She was quite determined in her way, and her young mistress liked her for it. “Don’t be so feeble.” Sophia had almost reached her destination, turning off the main street into a yard that might once have been a cattle market but which had now been commandeered by the army for what looked like a supply depot. Large carts unloaded cases and sacks and crates that were being carried to surrounding warehouses, and there seemed to be a constant stream of officers from every regiment, conferring and sometimes quarreling as they moved around in groups. The arrival of a striking young woman and her maid naturally attracted some attention, and the conversation, for a moment, was quelled and almost ceased. “Please don’t trouble yourselves,” said Sophia, looking around calmly. “I’m here to see my father, Mr. Trenchard.”
A young man stepped forward. “Do you know the way, Miss Trenchard?”
“I do. Thank you.” She walked toward a slightly more important-looking entrance to the main building, and, followed by the trembling Jane, she climbed the stairs to the first floor. Here she found more officers apparently waiting to be admitted, but this was a discipline to which Sophia was not prepared to submit. She pushed open the door. “You stay here,” she said. Jane dropped back, rather enjoying the curiosity of the men.
The room Sophia entered was a large one, light and commodious, with a handsome desk in smooth mahogany and other furniture in keeping with the style, but it was a setting for commerce rather than Society, a place of work, not play. In one corner, a portly man in his early forties was lecturing a brilliantly uniformed officer. “Who the devil is come to interrupt me!” He spun around, but at the sight of his daughter his mood changed and an endearing smile lit up his angry red face. “Well?” he said. But she looked at the officer. Her father nodded. “Captain Cooper, you must excuse me.”
“That’s all very well, Trenchard—“
Trenchard. But we must have the flour by tonight. My commanding officer made me promise not to return without it.”
“And I promise to do my level best, Captain.” The officer was clearly irritated but he was obliged to accept this, since he was not going to get anything better. With a nod he retired, and the father was alone with his girl. “Have you got it?” His excitement was palpable. There was something charming in his enthusiasm, this plump, balding master of business who was suddenly as excited as a child on Christmas Eve.
Very slowly, squeezing the last drop out of the moment, Sophia opened her reticule and carefully removed some squares of white pasteboard. “I have three,” she said, savoring her triumph, “one for you, one for Mama, and one for me.”
He almost tore them from her hand. If he had been without food and water for a month, he could not have been more anxious. The copperplate printing was simple and elegant.
He stared at the card. “I suppose Lord Bellasis will be dining there?”
“She is his aunt.”
“There won’t be a dinner. Not a proper one. Just the family and a few people who are staying with them.”
“They always say there’s no dinner, but there usually is.”
“You didn’t expect to be asked?”
He’d dreamed, but he hadn’t expected it. “No, no. I am content.”
“Edmund says there’s to be a supper sometime after midnight.”
“Don’t call him Edmund to anyone but me.” Still, his mood was gleeful again, his momentary disappointment already swept aside by the thought of what lay in store for them. “You must go back to your mother. She’ll need every minute to prepare.”
Sophia was too young and too full of unearned confidence to be quite aware of the enormity of what she had achieved. Besides which, she was more practical in these things than her starstruck papa. “It’s too late to have anything made.”
“But not too late to have things brought up to standard.”
“She won’t want to go.”
“She will, because she must.”
Sophia started toward the door, but then another thought struck her. “When shall we tell her?” she asked, staring at her father. He
was caught out by the question and started to fiddle with the gold fobs on his watch chain. It was an odd moment. Things were just as they had been a moment before, and yet somehow the tone and substance had changed. It would have been clear to any outside observer that the subject they were discussing was suddenly more serious than the choice of clothes for the Duchess’s ball.
Trenchard was very definite in his response. “Not yet. It must all be properly managed. We should take our lead from him. Now go. And send that blithering idiot back in.” His daughter did as she was told and slipped out of the room, but James Trenchard was still curiously preoccupied in her absence. There was shouting from the street below, and he wandered over to the window to look down on an officer and a trader arguing. Then the door opened and Captain Cooper entered. Trenchard nodded to him. It was time for business as usual.
Sophia was right. Her mother did not want to go to the ball. “We’ve only been asked because somebody’s let her down.”
“What difference does that make?”
“It’s so silly.” Mrs. Trenchard shook her head. “We won’t know a soul there.”
“Papa will know people.”
There were times when Anne Trenchard was irritated by her children. They knew little of life, for all their condescension. They had been spoiled from childhood, indulged by their father, until they both took their good fortune for granted and scarcely gave it a thought. They knew nothing of the journey their parents had made to reach their present position, while their mother remembered every tiny, stone-strewn step. “He will know some officers who come to his place of work to give him orders. They, in their turn, will be astonished to find they are sharing a ballroom with the man who supplies their men with bread and ale.”