The start of a new beginning
Gun shots. The roaring sounds of cannon fire. Men shouting. Women crying, searching for their children. Houses are being plundered by people we once called friends. Everywhere there’s blood, screaming, violence. I never thought I would live to see this day. And how agonizing it is indeed! My father cradles his three women in his strong arms and hushes our moans out of fear we’re heard. My two brothers are looking at the sky, afraid of who may open those doors. The way they look they’re just like the warfare gods of yore. Elias isn’t even old enough to wear a gun; he’s just fourteen. Nicholas on the contrary is the patriarch of his own family now, so I guess he must defend us as well as his wife and new born boy. I look at my nephew, who is -surprisingly- sleeping. We’re all afraid for the moment he wakes up and feels our anxiety. We should make sure he’s got something to eat to prevent him from crying. My sister-in-law Louisa is just wordlessly praying in unison with my mother.
Another blast and the ground shudders. Dust falls into our eyes. This one was much closer than the last. And indeed, suddenly I hear wood breaking close by, the sounds of statues being smashed to pieces, pieces of art being destroyed into oblivion, glass breaking and then flames of fire crackling. Footsteps are running and then there’s perfect silence, except for the rustling sounds of the flames. Nicholas looks to his father too afraid to ask what we should do next. I don’t know what causes his fears. I don’t understand him. What is there to do really? We are here. The flames are upstairs. We’re in our safe haven.
Not for long the raging fire upstairs reaches our shelter however. The heat is growing. Smoke clouds our sight and makes it difficult to breathe. My father puts his handkerchief over our mouths, so we won’t breath in the toxin smoke. I hear him coughing and feel my own eyes water. He puts us down to the ground where the air is fresher. Still, I’m having difficulty breathing. I’m afraid we all will die in this dreadful place. Roasted like bread in an oven. I can’t see anyone anymore. I hear a dull knock like somebody’s falling down. I don’t know who it is.
My eyes are burning, so I can’t cry anymore. My throat feels thick and raspy. It closes down my trachea. Therefore, breathing gets really hard and it hurts like hell. I feel airless, which my father’s body on top of me definitely makes it worse. My lungs are screaming for oxygen. I see stars in front of my eyes. And then the hatch to our shelter opens…
Screaming, I wake up. My sweat is running down my face. I really feel hot and feverish, while cool air is caressing my overheated skin. It will take a while before my breathing returns to normal. Such a vivid dream… Even now, ten years after escaping that inferno I still find myself back there. Back in France during the July Revolution as people call it now. I don’t care what name they give this event. For me, it was hell on earth. Violence a child should never have to witness. It left me marked for life. Not physically, luckily, but mentally. I’ll never lose my fear of fire. And even when my mind is occupied with other things, in my nightmares I return to Paris in 1830 and find myself locked up once more, afraid to die.
My father was part of the French bourgeoisie and luckily we were able to keep our title here in England. He is a Viscount here for as long as the French keep up their class system. When the classes disappear, so would our heritage. That’s why my father did everything in his power here to make money. He was a decent businessman and he was the boss of a big food factory in Liverpool. But he also expected his children to fight for our title. That’s why my oldest brother Nicholas married the pretty daughter of another Viscount. And since I was the firstborn daughter of my family, they wished me to marry a wealthy husband as well, so at least our future was safe.
My handmaid, Alice Green, suddenly enters my room startling me out of my reverie by wishing me a good morning merrily. I merely grunt. She opens my curtains and sunshine blinds me momentarily. ‘Good day, Miss,’ remarks my handmaiden humming. ‘Are you ready for your big day?’
Immediately, I jump up and my nightmare is almost forgotten. Today is a big day indeed. I’m coming out today as a woman. From the time I was a young girl, I was groomed for one role in my life: the role of a dutiful wife and mother. Therefore, I spent many years studying to achieve that goal. I even got a house teacher in etiquette, Mrs. Riley, who taught me how to enter a room properly – shoulders back, chin up, and not walking but floating into a room – how to sing, to play the piano, to dance like a lady, to make art and to be conversant about everyday business. But most of all, she taught me to be a proper lady and that meant speaking flawless English and French and learning the rules of etiquette as well as the art of conversation and the art of silence at the proper moments. I was extremely good at remembering things and pretty soon I had all the noble English family trees memorized and I was a star at the History of Art and European Literature.
The most difficult job for Mrs. Riley was to make me speak English properly, like the British upper class speak to each other. I still think it’s pretty hard to keep my French accent out of my speech, although I am trying the best I can. Luckily, society thinks it is a sign of a well-educated woman, when your speech is influenced by some French words.
I walk to the mirror next to my wardrobe and smile wryly. Besides, you can get me out of France, but you won’t be able to get France out of me. My features immediately show people I am not born in England. I have olive coloured skin, which only needs to feel the sun to get a Coppertone tan. My smooth skin contrasts with my lusciously waving hair and big brown eyes. My full lips give me a sensual look and my big breasts protest everyday again against the tight boning of a corset.
I recently completed my education, which is a sign I’m ready for womanhood. I’m not a child anymore, but a full grown woman. And that means only one thing: I’m ready for marriage. My father’s well-invented intentions with my future shall reach their peak. This is why he out so much effort in educating me the right way. It was all so I would marry a decent husband and preferably one above my class.
Coming out as a marriageable woman meant participating in the courtship ritual. Courtship was often seen as a career move, because all of a woman’s property fell into the hands of the husband after the wedding. Courting for a man was therefore a very serious business. This is true for both sides though. Women are trying to find the love of their lives. The romantic prince who sweeps us away. Of course, it’s quite the game for us. Who attracts the attention of a man higher in the ranks of British society? Who gets to marry a prince? Who will marry beneath her own station? Who will stay a single woman forever? These are the questions that drive us into our best behaviour. We buy the most extravagant dresses and jewellery to show off our wealth. We flirt with our fans, but only by blinking our eyelashes seductively. Nothing more. We’re neat girls after all. We don’t want to be ruined.
The first few years of my social life I will stay under my mother’s wing. Since she taught me everything I know, she will be my chaperone during the courting season and guide me to every event we will partake in. When my mother is ill or otherwise is prevented from coming, my brothers will follow me into these events, since a girl is not allowed out of the house by herself. This is especially true for mixed companies.
My first day of the courting season is quite the busy one; one which we went through over and over again. First, I am about to have breakfast in my mother’s dressing room. Then we will attend a concert and in the evening a ball at Hillcrest, the residence of the Morningtons. The Morningtons were a well-known family for events guarding the social season. I guess with five daughters you’ve got to marry off, you have to be first in line with these events. Therefore, every April we can count on a big ball at the Morningtons with all the extravagance this era can offer. Famous orchestra’s will be playing tonight, there will be entertainment and dances, at the end there will be fireworks, but above all every single noble man will be attending. Every upper class rank will be there tonight. This is our chance to marry above our station and become a princess or even a queen. When you make a man interested in you at the Morningtons, success will guaranteed be yours.
Alice sweeps into my room again carrying my debutante dress. Although it was customary for this dress to be white of colour, my mother thought it best to make it stand out a bit. Therefore, we chose to use a charming ivory colour over a white underground. My headdress includes three white feathers of a swan and a short veil which covers my eyes and nose. My mother thinks I have sensual lips and therefore I had to show them at least. Furthermore, my dress is short-sleeved and has an elegant low neckline. I especially liked my lace gloves, which stretched up to my elbows. I think they were perfect examples of elegance.
Alice rambles on about the weather and my debut, while she undresses me and washes my body. She puts on perfume and she puts on my corset. And for a while I feel like I’m back in my nightmare again. My breathing increases and I try to cool myself by thinking about the princes and dukes I’m about to meet tonight. Because one thing is certain: Duke Arlington is attending tonight as well.
Duke Liam Arlington… Only his name brings butterflies to my stomach. He is by far the most desired bachelor at this moment. Everybody knows the Arlington story. How the former Duke and Duchess died very young and Liam Arlington was forced to step into his father’s footsteps at an early age. We heard the rumours that because of this Liam lived the joie-de-vivre life, not caring about his duties, while it was his younger sister Christina who kept the estate up and running. Christina could only take over the duties of the Duke officially though by marrying someone of her social class or a prince. Talking about marriage as a career improvement. Despite the fact that Liam was an irresponsible Duke, every girl dreamt of winning his love. How nice would it be to win the Duke’s heart and make him realize he had been wasting time.
Catching Duke Arlington’s eye would still be a great responsibility for the bride to be, since the responsibilities a Duke has falls probably on her shoulders. But still, Liam is the prince charming of many eligible women. He is handsome indeed with his blonde hair and blue eyes, which he shared with his sibling. He has his way with the ladies and has a well-trained body. He loves to ride his horse, but is also a big fan of sporting matches.
‘Miss?’ asks Alice and I shake my head.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I asked if you liked your hair like this?’
I take a look at the mirror and I’m flabbergasted. This woman doesn’t look like me at all. I always thought of myself as a regular girl; not ugly, definitely not, but just not standing out. But the way I look today it’s as if I am a different person altogether. I have cheerful blushes on my cheek, while my eyes are dark and I daresay seductive. My sensual lips, as my mother would call them, are made ruby red giving them an extra sensual feeling. My hair is arranged in an updo collected at the back of my head. It is complimented by multiple loops of hair leading from the front of my head to the arrangement at the back. It is adorned with many little flowers. It shows off my slim neck, which is bedecked with a beautiful diamond necklace. I look like a princess of yore.
‘You’ve really outdone yourself today, Alice. I look stunning.’
My handmaid beams with pride at the compliment and she curtsied gratefully. ‘Miss should look outstanding today. It is a big day after all. One, we’ve lived up to all these years.’
‘And I wouldn’t have come this far without your excellent help through the years.’
I’ve known Alice all my life. She is the daughter of our housekeeper, Mrs. Green. Even before we left France Mrs. Green and Alice have been with our family, so I practically grew up with my housemaid. At the British countryside there weren’t many children of my age to play with, so Alice became my friend naturally. It resulted into a most extraordinary band between us. Alice was hardly much older than I was, but she was very smart for her age and therefore she formed an inexhaustible source of advice and solace to me. I could talk to her about almost everything and she was always there to listen to my problems and to support me whenever and wherever she could. As a kind of reward for her wisdom, I taught her reading and writing for many years now.
I know it’s not possible due to our different social classes, but I would say I saw Alice as my friend more than my employee. I am glad that she decided to come with me as soon as I found myself a suitable partner. It is nice to know that, though everything was hopefully about to change, one reliable aspect of my life stays the same at least.
Alice lays her hands on my shoulder and as a token of affection squeezes them encouragingly. ‘I know you will do fine, Miss. You’re absolutely prince-worthy.’
‘Thank you, my dear Alice. Now stop talking or I’m about to cry.’
Alice smiles heartily. ‘We wouldn’t want to make smudges on my masterpiece, now would we?’ She lets go of me and I smile after her. After that, I walk humming to my mother’s dressing room, where my mother is already sipping her tea. She studies the guest list of tonight’s ball at the Morningtons with a stern frown between her eyebrows.
She looks up when I enter the room and spreads her arms. ’There she is! My beautiful daughter. All ready for her first courting season. Turn around, dear, and let maman see how you look.’ I obediently twirl around and my mother claps her hands enthusiastically. ‘You look absolutely gorgeous, sweet girl. Alice has outdone herself this time.’
’I’m glad you approve of my looks today, maman.’
‘I always approve of how my sweet daughter looks. You have to show your father as soon as you’re done eating.’
‘That will be very soon indeed, since I can’t imagine eating anything today with all that tension building up in my stomach.’
My mother gives me a rueful smile. ‘I know what it feels like, darling. But you’ve come so far and learned so much. You are ready to start this new phase in your life. We have taught you well.’
She looks at the guest list again, while I munch on a piece of bread listlessly. ‘Lady Mornington has outdone herself this time. Almost everyone accepted her invitation to tonight’s ball. Only the Hudleys and the Styles are needed elsewhere.’ She raises an eyebrow incredibly. ‘The fools. Their loss. They obviously don’t know what they’re missing. The whole of London will be buzzing about this party. Mark my words.’
‘I hope so for Lady Mornington’s sake. According to Mary-Ann this party cost them a fortune.’
‘I can imagine that, but that’s of no concern to us. You will be the centre of attention looking like you do today.’
Before I can withhold myself I utter my worst fear for this day. It even sounds childish to me. ‘But what if nobody likes me?’
My mother smiles warmly and lays her warm hand on mine. ‘Then there’s always next year,’ she says in her soft voice. ‘Though I can’t imagine that nobody’s eye would fall on you. I mean, look at you. You’re a blessing for the eye.’
I bow my head in gratitude and start to eat from the dishes our servants put on the table. I drink a lot of mayweed tea to calm my nerves and eat a couple of fruits with toast. More food I really can’t stomach right now. After that, we go to my father, who’s in his study reading today’s newspaper.
After making many compliments about the way I look, he says: ‘The newspaper is full of today’s events at the Morningtons. It looks like they’ve outdone themselves this year.’
‘They say the same every year, Mr. Le Bon,’ observes my maman. ‘We’ll just have to see.’
‘They think that their balls will help their eldest daughter to find a suitable husband. But rumour has it that she already found a man, but he’s just a baron.’
My mother giggles and says: ‘Mr. Le Bon, I never held you for a slanderer. It doesn’t suit you, my love.’
My father shrugs and winks at me. ‘My information is based on facts, my dear, and therefore it isn’t gossiping exactly. I leave the untrue words, uttered due to jealousy, to you women.’
‘Not all women gossip,’ my mother says warningly.
‘I wouldn’t dare to say otherwise.’ My father rolls up his newspaper and rises. ‘I have to ride to Liverpool today. There was something wrong with one of the machineries.’
‘Nothing dreadful I hope?’
‘No, I guess it’s just a mechanical failure. Nothing to worry about. I will see you tonight at the Mornington’s ball.’
This is our cue to leave and we go to the drawing room, which is definitely the finest place in our house. It shows our status, gentility and our fine taste. Our room is handsomely furnished, which meant not below our station but also not too trying. All the ordinary elements it contains: ottomans, an antique cuckoo’s clock, easy chairs, a sofa, my sister Naomi’s writing desk, a sewing table, our famous piano and the round drawing room table. We have varnished paper on the wall, which looks exactly like real marble. Moreover, there is a comfortable hearth and chimney, which heats up the room agreeably. Above the hearth there is the head of a bear, which my grandfather shot down in his first hunting season on English soil.
My mother takes a seat on the sofa, but when I want to sit down next to her she waves me away. ‘Practice your piano skills, dear, before we leave.’
I’d rather continue reading the novel I was occupied with, but I don’t dare to contradict my maman. So, therefore I sit down grudgingly and play my favourite songs on the piano. In the meanwhile, my youngest sister Naomi enters the room and sits directly down behind her writing desk. She’s a fair creature, but a rebel one at that. Since she’s the second daughter, she thinks she doesn’t have to study like I did. She thinks that if I marry well, she doesn’t have to as well and can live her life as she pleases. I love her for her free spirit, but life doesn’t turn out like that. We are women and we have a duty to fulfil. And in that duty there’s no room for writing. A woman does not write occupationally. We keep a diary and that’s all the writing that’s allowed in society. I hope she will discover that before it’s too late. When I marry in this season she’s the next in line to be married off and start a family. And she would improve her chances if she’d stop writing and would pay more attention to her etiquette lessons.
Naomi can’t be blamed though. The one to blame is just entering the drawing room as well. It is my brother Elias. As a second son he never paid attention to his responsibilities. Since Nicholas got married, he inherits the responsibilities of the Le Bon family when father dies. That leaves Elias with nothing. Instead of marrying and trying to make up a name for himself, Elias just flounders about not knowing what to do with his life. He is a talented artist, I must admit, but he uses this talent to drink and live the bohemian life. He’s a charming man and could therefore easily find a suitable lady to marry him. He just doesn’t want to and therefore has a woman in every city or so it seems.
He has quite a few similarities with the current life Duke Arlington is leading, I daresay. Therefore, it is not wondrous that the two became real good friends. You could say that their friendship would get me a head start at winning Liam’s heart, but unfortunately Elias never introduced his friend to his family, so I don’t even know if the Duke is aware I exist at all. I guess papan’s overall opinion about the way both Elias and the Duke behave themselves and their late night practices took care of such an event ever happening. So, to be able to win the Duke’s heart I have to convince both my family and the Duke of my sincere affections for him. So, secretly I hope I find a man at tonight’s ball, who will sweep me off of my feet and make me forget Liam Arlington ever existed.
I love my siblings dearly, but sometimes it seems it all falls down on me. Elias whistles, when he sees my debutante dress and kisses me roughly on my hair. ‘Elias, please,’ I snarl at him. ‘Don’t ruin my hair.’
Elias laughs playfully. ‘I’m sorry, dear sister. I don’t want to ruin your big day. We all know how important this is for our family and stuff.’ He gives our mother a kiss on her cheek and cuddles Naomi, till she cries out laughing.
I roll my eyes. ‘Will you ever grow up?’
‘Why should I? We have Nicholas for that, haven’t we? I can be the fun brother.’ He ruffles Naomi’s hair and they start to wrestle.
‘Okay, that’s enough,’ our mother says. ‘Could you two at least act like we belong to the same household? It’s Elizabeth’s great day after all and nothing should go wrong.’
‘Unless, she wants to wrestle with us, I don’t see how our wrestling match can hurt our sister.’ After one cold look of maman he holds out his hands apologetically and sits down next to our mother. My mother gives him a cup of tea, which he eagerly drinks, meanwhile saying: ‘It pains my heart, but I won’t be joining you at the concert.’
‘Which excuse you made up this time?’
‘I’m visiting a boxing match with the Duke.’
‘But you two will be visiting the Morningtons, won’t you? It’s most important for your sister’s future.’
Elias rolls his eyes. ‘Of course we will be there. You would banish me from the estate, if I weren’t.’
‘I sure would. And please, try to be sober for once.’
‘I don’t drink.’ Elias puts his hand on his heart. ‘Now you have wounded me.’
‘And I would like a little bit more if that should keep you from drinking too much at the start of the courting season. It’s not only Elizabeth coming out, but it’s about time you find yourself a decent wife. Many seasons have passed already without you settling down, son.’
‘They all want me, mother.’ He gives my mother a kiss once more and stands up. ‘And I want them all the more.’ He grins, curtsies mockingly and leaves the drawing room laughing. My mother shakes her head and claps her hands.
‘Let’s go, girls. I don’t want to be late for the concert.’
We say goodbye to our father, while our carriage is taken in front. I see Alice on top of the stairs with a mope. She looks up and gives me one last thumbs-up. While riding to the concert I nervously play with my fan. This is it. Years I’ve spent on training and now it’s finally time for me to come out.
In a twenty minute drive we arrive at the Hanover Square Rooms. We enter the three story building and we take our reserved seats. While my mother talks to some people she is acquainted with, I take in the grandeur of the hall with the marvellous chandeliers and the painted ceilings. Afterwards, I look around the room and examine the other debutants like a sportsman who’s looking up the competition. One must know one’s competition after all. A few faces I recognize and I greet them with a respectable nod of the head or a small wave of the hand.
I see the Morningtons as well shaking hands vehemently as if they’re already hosting their party. The second daughter of the Morningtons is also coming out today. Mary-Ann is a dear friend of mine and we often have tea together. She is a spirited soul and has a kind heart. For her sake, I hope she will be able to find an eligible man this season. She is so much nicer and fairer than her eldest sister, who is a haughty and jealous woman.
When Mary-Ann sees me she walks right up to me and we exchange three polite kisses. ‘Excited for tonight?’
‘Yes, I am,’ I say honestly. ‘We have studied so long for this moment. I hope we are ready.’
‘I have witnessed Diana’s coming out, so I know a bit of what can be expected.’ She shows me her dance card for tonight’s dances. Her card is nearly as full as mine, which is a good sign for the both of us. ‘The Duke is willing to dance with me,’ Mary-Ann beams and I swallow back my indignation, since he isn’t on my dance card. Yet at least. ‘But I am not so smitten with him as Diana is. I fancy William Austen more, I guess. He’s the Marquess…’
‘Of Winchester,’ I finish her sentence, since I know the noble British families by heart after years of studying. ‘He’s all right, I fancy.’
‘Do you fancy anyone yet?’
‘The Duke of course, but since my father probably will not allow me to marry him, I reckon I have to turn my focus on someone else after tonight.’
Mary-Ann giggles. ‘Your family is a bit old-fashioned in that way, aren’t they?’
‘Well, I mean, I can understand. He’s worked so hard to uphold his title. It would be a shame if I married someone, who would disgrace my family sooner or later.’
Mary-Ann is called away and after another three kisses, she quickly runs back to her parents. I follow my friend and see Duke’s sister one loge away from the Morningtons. Christina Arlington sits in her private lodge with her guardian Mrs. Maxwell. Many men in the room try to catch her attention, but she stares almost bored to the orchestra pit, where the London’s Royal Philharmonic Society are tuning their instruments. In the semi-dark of the concert building the Princess’ hair looks like a satin carpet of gold. She wears her hair loose and on her straight hair a diamond tiara is worn. She is the perfect example of how a respectable woman should look. I kind of envy her status and beauty.
The lights suddenly go out and I can only make out the spotlighted orchestra pit. Then the London’s Royal Philharmonic Society starts to play and I must confess: I have never heard anything like it. I have often heard people tell stories about the beautiful music of the Orchestra, but I never imagined I could be swept away like this by some instruments. All of my worries are simply gone. In the next couple of hours I experience joy, sadness, anger and euphoria due to the mesmerizing sound of the instruments. I let the music carry me away, while I watch the concentrated faces of the musicians and their skilled hands playing the instruments enthralled.
When they are finished, I have to remind myself to react composed, while I’d rather jump up and scream my enthusiasm and clap till my hands would ache. Instead I clap very ladylike and controlled, while my heart hammers in my chest and tears are still running down my cheeks.
In the corner of my eye I see Princess Arlington staring at me and as our eyes meet, she nods her head respectfully but with a small smile on her lips. She wipes away a few tears of her own and I smile. It looks like I am not the only person who couldn’t keep a straight face during all of that. If all of the events during the courting season are this intense, then I would very much like it never to be over again.