I was late to the ball, and the music had already started when the coachman let me out at the marbled steps in front of the Duchess’s residence. Gathering my skirts and summoning my courage, I walked past the stone lions, chipped and weathered with age, up the steps, and to the doorway, where Bartholomew, the butler, waited to greet me.
My late arrival was not because of habitual tardiness on my part. Rather, I was new to Caledonian society – or, here, Society – and spent far too long ensuring my hair and makeup were just right before slipping into the ball gown I could scarcely afford and leaving my cottage for the waiting coach. I had no lady’s maid of my own, being a humble scrivener, so I had to apply the powders and unguents myself, then act as my own critic. Knowing I was running very late for the ball, my first important social invitation, made my hand unsteady, lengthening the process still further.
“What can you tell me about Her Grace, the Duchess of Loch Wright?” I asked Willig, the driver of the phaeton. Although I could have hired one of the new horseless carriages and reached my destination sooner, I had wanted to keep my gown as free as possible from coal dust, which the steam-powered vehicles produced in abundance. Furthermore, pulling up in a phaeton seemed so much more elegant and befitting the occasion.
Willig and I knew one another slightly, as he was one of my sources of information both for activities of the wealthy, whom he chauffeured, and the poor in Cheapside, where he and his wife lived. Willig clearly disapproved of me, firmly believing that women, regardless of class, had no business in a profession. A grown woman should marry, raise children, and, if wealthy, set an example for the nation through Good Deeds. I had explained to him this would never be my lot in life. He would grumble, take my money, and provide me with information. Despite his complaints, he was a good-hearted man who wanted a better life for his wife and children, and assumed one day I would come around to his point of view.
“Well, Miss, ’er Grace comes from an old Caledonian family. They’ve owned that slab of rock on Loch Wright ever since it rose from the sea, or so it’s been said.” He took off his cap with one hand, scratched his head, and replaced the cap, all the while keeping a steady hand on the reins with the other hand. “ ’Er ’usband, rest ’is soul, perished during the goings on with Neualtenberg, leavin’ ’er with the two young ’uns. But she’s still a young woman ’erself, and a looker at that (if you don’t mind my saying so, Miss), an’ I’ve heard she’s been spending plenty o’ time with the Baron Slater.”
“So soon after the Duke’s death?”
“Some say it’s too soon, aye. But ’er Grace, she’s strong-willed, that’s for certain.”
As the carriage made its way to the peninsula in Loch Wright where the Duchess’s mansion stood, I learned that the title was hers in her own right, as her father had no male heirs, and that her husband, though a commoner, was a Captain in the Caledonian navy and, had he survived, was likely to have been knighted by the Governor for services rendered during the war. The couple had a daughter, now a little more than a year old. Since being widowed, the Duchess had mourned for six weeks and then declared her mourning period was over, after which Baron Slater of East Saxonburg had called upon her quite often. It was possible that their engagement would be announced as early as the present evening, at the ball.
The ball was ostensibly to celebrate the summer solstice, and it had been a tradition in the Varienne family for more than a century. The Duchess, like her ancestors, spared no expense in decorations, food and wine, or entertainment, and the cream of Caledonian society made it a point to attend. I had received an invitation from Colonel Somme, whom I had been able to assist in a small way earlier in the year, and who knew of my desire to attend. He arranged with the Duchess an invitation for me.
I thanked Willig for his information, and paid him a handsome tip along as he pulled up the carriageway of the mansion. He departed for the stables, where he and the other drivers would wait until the end of the ball. I followed Bartholomew into the great hall of the mansion.