The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball

For the first time, I’ve written a historical short story, set in Regency times, 1815. I have to admit to a great love of Jane Austen, so I hope you recognise something of her tone.


Rue des CendresBrussels

June 15th, 1815

My dearest sister,

Be assured that I am well, lately arrived with my party at Rue des Cendres. You were quite right to tell me to pack my French dictionary, for now I can tell you that we lodge in the Road of Cinders – is that not amusing?

Crossing the English Channel was quite shocking as the seas were excessively violent, but I will not worry you with how wretched I felt, because all is blue sky and sunshine now we have arrived.

It is a queer house indeed, but I am told that there are so many officers of note in Brussels, that even a Duke must lodge where he may – is that not shocking! But! There is a wonderful ballroom (you can be sure that I investigated that at my earliest opportunity). It is a large and airy room – at least one hundred feet long and I suspect more – on the ground floor on the left of the entrance, but connected with the rest of the house by an ante room. I believe it was used by the coach builder from whom the house was rented. Imagine! It was full of carriages before we arrived, but has now been wallpapered with a pretty trellis pattern of roses. It has been used for games of battledore and shuttlecock when the weather keeps the family indoors. But what fun it would have been to sit on hay bales and stroke the noses of the horses in between quadrilles! I’m sure you think me fanciful, but how amusing and such laughter would surely have ensued.

Georgy (as dear Georgiana has asked me to call her, as I am here at her invitation and her particular friend), says that we will attend Reviews, as well as ride out with her sisters to visit other families who have settled in Brussels. She says that there is a plethora of concerts, aplenty of picnics, dozens of dinners, assemblies, and dances which fill the Richmonds’ diary. Balls are held two or three times a week!

My room is delightful and overlooks la rue. Her Grace had originally thought to put me at the rear of the house which would be quieter, certainly, but think of all the scenery and excitement I would then miss. I argued my case vigorously and she relented at last, so now I may gaze over all the fine officers and their mounts, as they lead their brave soldiers through the streets.

I suppose there must be a battle, everyone says there will be, but it’s hard to imagine even though one sees Hussars in their green jackets, Dragoons in their red coats with golden helmets, and the mysterious Brunswickers in their black uniforms, whom I consider the most dashing of all.

You must think that I have not a thought in my head but officers and frivolity, and I assure you that is entirely the case! But I must pause a little to remark on the food, which I know you will enjoy.

Her Grace is a most charming host and we dine on white soup every afternoon. Then one might find four or five different meats on the table: Pigeons, Venison, Chyne of Mutton and Snipes. Even the servants have two different types of meat per person. I can also report that I have eaten my first artichoke, a queer, theatrical vegetable that tastes somewhat like French Beans (of which there are plenty and served with every meal). There is a choice of hot dishes and of course syllabub. They are vastly keen on fruit as it is said to prevent scurvy.

But here is just come the most exciting news – Her Grace is to host a ball tonight! Now the Duke of Wellington has returned from Vienna he will set about making ready the troops. Lord March, Richmond’s eldest son, is aide-de-camp to the Prince of Orange, and the two younger brothers George and William were also to be involved in the fighting in a similar capacity.

I am so happy here that all I need is my dear sister to make it perfect. But as you are not, I must describe everything to you in detail. Starting with my dress for the ball tonight.

I had thought I was equipped for a night with the ton, but Georgy would have me choose a gown of hers – and pretend that we are sisters! Although she has six of her own, she prefers my company at all times.

My hair is to be dressed close to my head but with curls and twists to the side of my face. I have not yet decided whether to wear a toque or a bandeau. I have eschewed the turban as one becomes quite warm when dancing, and I intend to dance at every opportunity. There will be more gentleman than ladies, to be sure!

The bodice is wide but short, the waistline is quite high, and there is now trimming that adds volume to the shoulder, enhancing the horizontal effect. I do think it suits me remarkably well.

The correct attire for gentlemen is knee breeches, white cravat and chapeau bras (which here is called a ‘bicorne’ hat), and of course one must stand in a dégagé attitude, with his fingers in his waistcoat pocket. His neck-cloth must be beyond rebuke, and must have cost him time and trouble to arrive at such perfection. Such nonsense! What is a mere ‘mister’ when there are Captains and Majors to be met with?

But I must leave off now and go about my toilette. Oh sister, wish me must joy as I wish you!

PS I am grateful that our poor, patient governess Madame B., managed to shoehorn some French into my dull brain, for it means I am able to converse with Her Grace’s lady’s maid who speaks nothing but French, and I am able to instruct her how to dress my hair.

June 16th, 3am

Even though the hour is late or maybe very early, I must write to you, but please forgive my ink blots and crossings-out. My heart is so full, I can barely write or mend my pen. Tonight I danced with Lord Hay. His name is James. Do not you think it the most gentlemanly, the most noble of names? Indeed, I think he is the superior of all men.

His father is the 17th Earl of Erroll, a scotch title, but an ancient one, so that is not too awful. Happily, the family home is Woodbury House in the county of Bedfordshire, a fine estate of several hundred acres – I not know exactly how many for one cannot remember everything when one dances a cotillion.

But I must, I must talk of Lord Hay. He is a dashing and merry youth, full of military ardour, and so handsome, just as a young man ought to be if he possibly can. I’m sure when the time comes, he will acquit himself with great honour.

He is only an Ensign in the First Foot Guards but fully intends to earn his spurs (as he told me with great delight). He is aide-de-camp to General Maitland, a good sort of man, not quite ancient although I believe he is approaching forty, but dear sister, you will forgive me for saying that he was not wholly pleasant company. He seems to think that cricket, of all things, is the most superior sport in the world, and he would hardly talk of anything else. Yet, it must be cricket and only talking of cricket could bring anything like animation to his plain features. But my dearest James says that the General also began as a lowly Ensign and look where he is now!

Do you not think I would admirably suit the life of wife to a military man? I think it would suit me vastly well. The excitement of moving from place to place, always novelty and new acquaintance. Yes, I think I could wish for nothing more.

Oh, I have so much to tell you! I met the Duke of Wellington! I was quite afraid at first, but Georgiana is not at all afraid of him and her family have known him forever. Indeed, she rides out with him most days. She says he has a very wicked sense of humour! I would not have thought that of such a spare, austere sort of man. But apparently our lodgings are on the site of an old laundry house from the 1600s, so the Duke has nicknamed it ‘The Wash House’. Such a naughty, teasing man! I thought I should die laughing!

The great Sir Arthur (as dear Georgiana and all the other sisters call him) arrived rather late to the ball, but then he said to Lord., “Hay, you are a lucky fellow, to see such a sight as the French Army in your first battle.” Such peculiar attention from such a great man. I was quite overcome on his behalf.

Oh, Agnes! If only you could have been with me to see my triumph tonight and shared with my happiness. Lady P. says that H. is quite besotted with me, and is you know, she is never wrong, as she has often told me herself!

And can you guess what happened next? Nothing would please Lord Hay better than that he would dance with me a third time!

But then he looked most serious and said that rumours had begun to circulate that the French were close by at Quatres Bras near the village of Waterloo. When the Duke of Wellington heard this, we were dancing, but Georgy went to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, “Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.”

This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, my H. insisted on staying with me so we could dance again, and said he did not care if there was no time to change his clothes and he would happily fight in his evening costume so he could spend another moment with me! Was that not gallant? Was that not kind? I hardly dare tell you everything that I feel.

His Grace remained calm and collected as is his wont. At dinner he sat with Georgy and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, and all night he received messages about the French movements. At one point, he requested a map from Her Grace’s husband, the Duke of Richmond, and they retired into the library with the other Generals.

Wellington stayed at the ball until half past two, and then H. would go with him. He said goodbye to me most ardently and respectfully and said he hoped very much that he would see me again after the battle. My heart is very full.

Georgy went with her brother to his house in the grounds to pack his belongings and bid farewell. She, her sisters and her mother parted with painful goodbyes.

We huddled together for comfort until Her Grace insisted that we retire so we would be fresh and awake to welcome back our brave soldiers on the morrow.

The rain has been rattling against the windows ever since and I cannot sleep for an unpleasant sense of foreboding. Oh my dearest sister, I wish with all my heart that you were beside me and could assure me that all will be well.

I passed a wretched night as you may guess, and breakfasted in silence. Everyone is worried and our nerves are frayed.

Oh my dearest A, something quite serious and alarming has occurred. My heart now trembles for another reason. We can hear the canon! They say that Napoleon’s artillery is feared across the world, and I think it must be so. when I think of my dearest, darling James sent into the fray, into the very heat of the moment, such a brave young man, I tremble so. But I do think that after this terrible battle is over he will make me an offer! He has much has said so! How can I possibly contain so much joy, even in the midst of such alarm?

I will write again when the outcome is confirmed.

Your affectionate sister,

Honoria


I hope you enjoyed this epistolary style short story set on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Lord Hay was a real person and the ball itself took place, as described.

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