The subject of the Crimean War and even more so the epoch of Queen Victoria’s rule has captured many people’s minds. The famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson about the Charge of the Light Brigade sheds some light on that fateful gallop towards the Russian cannons. Apart from traditional historical sources, eyewitnesses’ prose and poetic words, there is another very viable way to learn more about what happened. The Crimean War was the first global conflict to have ever been photographed by camera. Not only that, but also many facets of Victorian life would fall to the camera’s lens, giving me plentiful data from which to write a romance story with an authentic historical twist.
If you have an interest in seeing some of those photographs, you can get a look at them by clicking on this link. It truly is a fascinating depiction of Victorian Britain.
With that in mind, I have done my upmost to remain as true as possible to the events that unfolded around the Crimean War. Everything from the clothing, weapons, the descriptions of towns, countryside and way of life are as true to form as can be based on the reliability of the historical sources.
What is marvellous is that the dialogues and messages exchanged between the British commanding officers before the fateful Charge of the Light Brigade actually took place in precisely that manner. On that note, I would like to remind you that Lords Raglan, Airy, Cardigan and Lucan were the actual commanders in the British expeditionary force. James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan behaved very much in the way I described in the novel. Although, sometimes, I may have exaggerated a little to make him appear the partial antihero that he was. I say that because he was arrogant to the point of being dangerous and at the same time the earl was generous and very brave. The enmity he shared with Lucan is also true.
Perhaps the single most inspiring figure, apart from maybe Queen Victoria, was Florence Nightingale. Here, I also attempted to tread on the factual line that historical sources provided me. She was as described in the book, a very hardworking, focused and compassionate individual. In a way she was not typical of her sex’s contemporaries where marriage and the bearing of children were a lady’s number one priority. Modern nursing and the effective management of war and peacetime hospitals are accredited to this great lady.
The period was ripe with exciting and sometimes frightening events involving many different types of people, allowing for a perfect background to write an entertaining and heart-warming Victorian romance novel.
Saying that, I must add that the protagonists are of course children of my imagination. I speak of Stirling Whitt Whittaker, Clementine and Elizabeth Delaney, Royce Ryder, Rory Bennett, Jake Metcalf, the Duke of Kenbridge and Stirling’s brothers, the Earl of Leighton and his wife and finally Ahmed. However, the way they behaved and their clothing was as much indoctrinated by the time, as I was able to make it. In addition, the timeframes throughout the novel are also as much in line with the unfolding of actual events as I could make it. Naturally, many of the dialogues are of my mind, however, I tried to make them as authentic to the time as I was able.
There is one exception with the Black Bottle Affair and the ensuing mockery of Lord Cardigan in the theatre in London. This incident did take place, albeit sixteen years earlier. Naturally, it did not involve Stirling but a captain called Reynolds. It was just too good a portrayal of Cardigan’s persona to pass up.
Having said that, I can safely assume that you’ll enjoy this book a much as I enjoyed writing it and that I succeeded in bringing the Victorian era back to life, for no matter how brief. It was a fascinating period of technological advancement that changed the world forever. Developing love and passion between Clementine and Stirling was a great deal of fun and sometimes tears and I sincerely hope that I succeeded in giving them a place in your hearts.
"The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk"
Thank you for reading my book.
The martial sound of trumpets, flutes and drums filled the late spring air with notes of purposefulness. It was the same as every morning when the troops assembled for inspection. The sweet birdsong of the Greenfinch consisting of a combination of sweet trills and chesty follow-ups competed with that of the Redwing in the trees nearby. In time, the latter bird outdid, as its fluting song was soon taken up by its fellows, multiplying a hundredfold, until it became a pleasant rushing sound, almost like a distant waterfall. Soon bird and band warbled and tooted in unison like they belonged together.
There was hardly a cloud in the sky. The sun shone seductively over the Kentish countryside. It was a diverse and vibrant landscape riddled with networks of tiny lanes and historic hedgerows, woodlands, idyllic villages, culminating in the white cliffs of Dover to the south.
The ground where the men waited on their horses was lush and green, as only the fields in England so could. They were a fine sight, and many claimed that they were the best light cavalry unit in the whole world, fast with the sabre and fearless in battle. They were known as Prince Albert’s Own after the Prince, Queen Victoria’s consort.
Rank upon rank of cavalrymen sat on their mounts. Around them and a little further afield, groups of spectators had formed up. There were children, mainly boys, showing their parents what they wanted to be when they grew up. Their loud acclaim and childish glee was nearly outdone by the silent whispering of the many young women pointing out their favourites and detailing their dreams of marriage to the others next to them.
They were a fine sight. Prince Albert had said as much when he had arrived in England from Coburg to marry the queen. They had escorted him from Dover to London and even formed a part of their escort on their wedding day.
Their uniforms consisted of a fur busby with maroon-red bag and yellow cap lines, complete with a black and maroon horsehair hackle. This headgear was kept in place on their heads with a traditional roping attaching it to the tunic. So, should it be dislodged in battle, it would not be lost. For the visual effect, a golden brocaded band held it in place, slightly above the chin.
Their torsos were bedecked with heavily brocaded blue dolmans and pelisses. On their legs, they sported the regiment’s iconic crimson trousers with double yellow stripes down the sides. The colour was Prince Albert’s idea and adopted from the Saxe-Coburg livery. This fitted very well with the dubious regimental sobriquet of the Cherrypickers. A name acquired during the Peninsular War against Napoleon when they had to hide in cherry trees from the French.
“The eleventh Hussars are ready for inspection, My Lord.” The major in charge of the regiment lifted the handle of his sabre to his nose in salute. In moments, the entire brigade followed suit with a rattle of swords against scabbards.
James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan sat on his chestnut mare, resplendent, like his men, in the company’s signature uniform. His escort and the senior officers in the unit surrounded him. The aristocrat was blessed with extraordinary good looks. He was tall, with wide shoulders, tapering to a narrow waist. Although, due to his advancing years, he was approaching sixty, everything was held in place by the most outrageously tight corset. On his head and under his busby, he sported a luxuriant mane of golden-grey hair. His sapphire-blue eyes sparkled imperiously as he looked down his beaked nose at his Cherrybums as he liked to call them.
“Very good, sir,” he replied.
“My Lord.” The Major dropped his sword from his face and placed the blade upright against his shoulder. The men of the brigade did the same.
The Earl of Cardigan began his inspection by trotting down the line of men that sat stiff and proud on their mounts. The band had struck up another tune. They currently played the regimental slow march of Coburg. Cardigan did not utter a word. He just nodded his approval at the impeccable turnout of his men. It was what he expected. He was the symbol and heart of the brigade in every way. In essence, being the commander of the eleventh Hussars was his life.
Major General, Earl of Cardigan was a licentious rake. He had met his wife, Mrs Elizabeth Tollemache Johnstone, when she was getting married to a childhood friend of the earl’s. The wooing of Elizabeth started soon afterwards. Four years later, Elizabeth’s husband started divorce proceedings and the suit was finished two years later in the year Cardigan and Elizabeth married. Throughout their marriage, he constantly had affairs until they divorced nine years later. Ultimately, he had to concur with his childhood friend: Elizabeth was “the most damned bad-tempered and extravagant bitch in the kingdom.”
“Who are you, sir?” said the earl when he reached a man at the end of the line.
“Captain Stirling Whitt Whitaker, My Lord.”
The earl eyed the young gentleman in his early thirties. He immediately disliked him. He was too good-looking and far too slight of build. His frame almost became one with the saddle. The joining of beast and man was fluid, as if they amalgamated into a centaur. Cardigan immediately recognized a fellow horseman in the confident dark-haired young man. He willed him with the force of his eyes to look away, but he didn’t. Instead, a piercing emerald-green countered his blue.
“Do you know who I am, sir?” snapped the earl.
“But of course, My Lord. You are Major General James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. You studied at Oxford, but you left after three years, preferring to go on a grand tour and start a political career after that. If I am not mistaken, My Lord, you joined the eighth King’s Royal Irish Hussars…”
Cardigan raised a gloved hand. “That is quite enough, sir. I do not propose, you recount my life in any further detail, what is what. It’s no damn business of anyone – what is what – I am Lord Cardigan and your superior officer. That is all you need to know about me.”
The earl swivelled on his saddle to look at the colonel sitting on his horse next to him. “Why was I not told that this man would be attending morning parade? This is an outrage.” Seeing his subordinate dithering with a response, he roared again. “You bloody well don’t know who this gentleman is or where he came from?” The other man with a fluffy blond beard gulped.
“I have been gazetted to the eleventh, My Lord. I have just returned from India by way of Aden and Egypt. I served in the governor’s guard in Bombay,” said Stirling, starting to dislike his arrogant commander.
“Don’t you speak to me of India, sir! The place is full of black rogues. Do you consider yourself one of them?” Cardigan straightened his frame some more, if that were even possible.
“Captain Whitt Whitaker is the third son of the Duke of Kenbridge, My Lord,” intervened the colonel.
“Don’t you interrupt me, Winters. I am more than capable of discerning who this man is and what he is doing in my regiment. It appears that he is a penniless scoundrel that would have done better serving the church.” He did not look at the colonel. Instead he kept his piercing gaze on the captain. “May I ask why you are not attired in the correct manner? This is not a gathering for a leisurely morning ride in Hyde Park, sir.”
For the first time that morning, Stirling became aware of his black overcoat, breeches and top hat. “I have not been issued with the uniform yet, My Lord. As I said, I just arrived by ship in London a few days ago, and I was told to join my regiment as soon as possible.”
Cardigan grunted some inaudible words that sounded like insults. “Very bad form, if you ask me. Look around you, young man, and tell me what you see.”
Stirling turned his head to the left. He spent a few moments thinking of the best way to respond. “I see the finest horsemen in the realm, My Lord.”
“Quite right. At least the man is not an imbecile.” The remark invited some mirth from the men closest to him. “Now, let me tell you something…” Cardigan frowned as he tried to remember the man’s name.
“Captain Whitt Whitaker, My Lord.”
“Don’t you interrupt me when I am talking to you.” He puffed out his chest, straining the golden buttons on his tunic. “I will have you know that I keep my Cherrybums light and sprightly. You, sir, look like a man dressed in a sack of potatoes…I will not have it.”
Stirling chuckled. “Yes, I did lose a little weight in India. The food’s not as abundant and as good as it is here, My Lord.”
“Are you implying that we are obese, sir?”
“No, My Lord. I apologize if…”
“Thought not. Ten thousand a year I spend out of my own pocket to feed and clothe the men of the 11th. A master cutler sharpens their swords and I personally make sure that their garments are tightly stitched and cut to a shadow.” Cardigan snorted loudly. “I always say, if my men can’t fornicate, they can’t fight.”
Raucous laughter broke out. “Here’s to the earl,” shouted the men.
Cardigan basked in the acclaim until it died down. “Now, you listen here. If you ever appear at an inspection dressed inappropriately again, I will have you flogged until your back is raw. Do I make myself abundantly clear?”
“Abundantly, My Lord.”
“Good, then let’s see what you Indians are capable of, shall we.” Cardigan turned to his second in command. “Give the order to fetch Inferno. I’d like to see how this man handles a horse. You there, Caruthers. Would you be so kind as to show this gentleman how it is done?”
“It would be my pleasure, My Lord.” The assigned man heeled his mount forward until it came to a rest a few paces in front of the assembled men and steeds. He waited patiently for one of the grooms to appear with a black stallion in tow. It was a magnificent beast with a coat that glistened in the sunlight like an obsidian rock. It pulled and resisted the groom’s attempts at coaxing it forward. His hooves scuffed the turf, digging out divots from the perfect green of the grass that spread out like a silk carpet. The horse’s nostrils flared red and its ears swivelled this way and that.
“Caruthers, do the honours please,” ordered Cardigan.
The cavalryman dismounted and led his mount forward, handing the reigns to the groom. The stallion became more agitated in the presence of the other animal. Caruthers took the other horse’s reigns and pulled violently, forcing the stallion onto its hind legs. It whinnied in protest at the rough handling.
Caruthers did not stop pulling. With one swift move, he flung himself onto the saddle. It took him a while to calm the animal. When it finally settled, he urged it into a canter with his heels and riding crop, whipping harshly. And just as quickly as it started, it came to an abrupt end. The stallion bucked hard and reared, hurling the hussar off his back.
The assembled men burst out laughing. Cardigan’s face went a bright red. He looked at the dishevelled man on the ground with disdain. Without being prompted, Stirling dismounted and walked up to the towering black behemoth. He cooed endearments as he approached the horse. He came at a tangent so as not to irritate the proud beast any more than necessary.
“Steady, steady…easy boy…woo…easy boy.” When he reached Inferno, he placed his hand on his muzzle, stroking it gently. With his other hand, he patted the animal’s neck. Stirling continued doing this for a while until he was confident that he had quietened the horse sufficiently.
Quick as a sprite, he mounted. “Easy does it, boy.” He patted its neck again. “Gently now…gently…there, woo.” Inferno responded to his touch and soft words and began to trot. “Walk on, walk on…there. Now, let’s go for something a little more exciting.” Stirling heeled the flanks, spurring the stallion into a canter.
He went around the parade ground a few times. The entire battalion watched on in fascinated silence. Inferno was known as the nastiest and most untamed of all of the mounts in the regiment. Usually, Caruthers was able to ride him, but that depended on the animal’s temperament. Stirling directed the horse back to the waiting men and earl. He dismounted next to a chastened Caruthers and handed him the reigns.
“Xenophon’s words should be painted onto every stable end: ‘horses are taught not by harshness, but by gentleness.’ Of course, for classical officers like Caruthers here, the inscription should be written in Greek.”
The men who could hear the exchange howled their hilarity. Stirling walked off and remounted his white stallion, Cloud. He sat stiffly in the saddle and waited for the earl’s tirade.
Like a champagne cork exploding from a bottle, Cardigan shouted, “Caruthers!”
“Sir…My Lord.” The trooper spun around and jogged up to Cardigan where he stood to attention before his superior officer.
“I will not have one of my officers shown up by an Indian reg. He made a monkey of you, sir.” With a snort, Cardigan spurred his horse and cantered away, as the men hurled further insults at the humiliated soldier. The invectives directed at Caruthers lasted until the last of the men passing his position in pursuit of their commander disappeared. Caruthers gave Stirling one final withering glower before he mounted his horse and followed his comrades.
As they dispersed and headed for the stables, a man trotted over on his horse from the other side of the field. “Stirling, my old friend. It is so good to see you and here of all places.”
“By Jove, Royce. It is you, it is you.” Stirling rode up to his old childhood friend. “You did write to me that you served in the 11th. I’d nearly forgotten because you scribble an awful lot in your letters.”
Royce laughed. “Yes, there’s always so much to say.” They dismounted and embraced. “Did you get my last letter?”
“Yes, I did. It reached me when I was about to board ship in Calais,” said Stirling.
“Then you know that I am to be married this weekend to the most delightful lady.” Royce beamed with pride. “Do say that you are coming to the wedding, Stirling.”
Stirling furrowed his brow. “Dear friend, I am afraid I cannot. I have been summoned to attend to my father.”
Royce was crestfallen. “Can’t you postpone? Even if it is only for the church service.”
Stirling sighed when he saw the pleading expression on his friend’s face. “Oh, alright. Only for a short while then. But if it costs me my commission in the 11th Hussars, I will have your head. I need my father who has to convince that fool Cardigan that I have the stuff to be a part of his brigade.”
“But you do. You’re the best damn horseman in England, if not the whole of Europe. And besides, the earl will be attending the wedding. You might be able to change his mind about you.”
Stirling chuckled. “You are too kind, Royce. But I am afraid after my recent little performance I will need a little extra clout than a little chat with the likes of him. Cardigan will never refuse the word of a duke connected to the queen. Even if I am only the third son.” Stirling patted his friend on the back. “Come on, let’s go for a drink and you can tell me all about this lovely girl of yours.”
Royce’s face lit up. “Yes, she is lovely. I only hope that I will be alive long enough to be the husband she deserves. There’s talk of war, you know.”
“Yes, I know. Poor little Turkey…but don’t look so glum. War is the stuff, Royce.”
“That is why you must come to the wedding. It may well be the last time we get to celebrate anything for a while. You did mean it when you said you’d come, Stirling?”
“Yes, but I can’t stay long…”
“All I ask is that my dear friend is in attendance when I marry the woman I love. Now, come on, let’s go for that drink. I know a delightful little pub close to the barracks,” said Royce before his friend could change his mind or add any more limitations.
Despite the cheerful birdsong that still continued unabatedly, something very heavy hung in the air like a foul rumour. The cacophony of war would soon turn toy soldiers into men. Lives would be changed forever and the destiny of two men would be forged by steel and blood.
“I’m so happy for you, Elizabeth. This is going to be the best day of your life,” said Clementine to her sister. She did not quite believe what she said. It was just what was expected of her under the circumstances.
Her sister’s husband-to-be was a decent enough sort – a dashing hussar in one of the most prestigious regiments in the land. Yet, somehow, Clementine wanted more for herself than just that. It was fine that her sister followed the path that was set out for her, but Clementine would be damned if she did the same.
“It’s so thrilling, I can’t believe I’m getting married today,” said Elizabeth in a chirrupy voice. She hopped from one leg to the other. The sisters giggled girlishly. Clementine ran her hands over her sister’s dress, fluffing it up wherever necessary.
Clementine studied Elizabeth closely with her silver-grey eyes that exuded great intelligence but most of all purpose. The skin on her cordate face was as smooth as a peach’s and radiated health and youthful abundance. It had the hue of the inside of a china teacup, pearl-white, like ivory.
She was only twenty-one years old and, as her mother so often liked to remind her, well overdue for a suitable match of her own. But Clementine wanted more from life than just a husband. She was unlike the typical Victorian girl that knew no other ambition in life than to marry and marry well.
That was her father’s fault. Being the eldest of two girls, he had more or less raised her like a boy. She could shoot like a man and ride a horse like a man. The last skill was something they had kept a secret. In polite society, it just wouldn’t do to have a lady sitting astride of a horse with her legs dangling down its flanks. But none of that mattered really. The thing that defined Clementine was her education. Her father, the Earl of Leighton, had spent countless hours versing her in history, mathematics, Greek, Latin and French. Clementine was more than able to hold her own in any discourse with the superiorly educated men of the time.
Clementine looked at her sister who was still preoccupied with her clothing. She looked so radiant in her off-white wedding gown that had a fitted bodice emphasising the smallness of her waist. Her full skirt fell down her legs in a maelstrom of fluffy hoops and frilly petticoats. It was made of organdie with elements of silk and culminated in different places with ruched bits of lace.
Still captured in a state of observance, she thought how young she was. Only six weeks ago, it had been her nineteenth birthday and now she was getting married. How time flies. It was not that long ago when she constantly tripped over and fell into puddles. The irritating pest, as Clementine had liked to call her, was a woman now. Soon, she would have a home and children of her own, while she still lived with her parents in the Kentish countryside. Elizabeth pressed her lips together. Not if I have anything to do with it, she thought.
For a long time, Clementine had had plans to go to London. It was the centre of the world and the number one place for adventure. The epicentre of an empire that would one day soon cover one quarter of the earth’s landmass and claim one quarter of its population as its subjects. It was the capital city of the most powerful nation in the world. British warships policed the sea-lanes, bringing the Pax Britannica to all corners of the planet. There was hardly a place on the face of the globe that was not within the reach of the British crown.
Clementine’s mother had a mind to launch her into society. It was something that Clementine had avoided for the better part of three years. Her younger sister had completed the circuit, resulting in her wedding this day to a dashing young hussar. It was what was expected of a young lady, but Clementine had other plans for her stay in London. Her father knew of them.
Although he did not approve and would have much rather seen the more beautiful of his daughters married to a suitable gentleman, he did not have the heart to refuse her anything. Mother was the problem. She would go berserk when she found out that her eldest daughter was not going to the capital city to meet men, but to leave her mark on the world.
“So, Sister, are you looking forward to your launch into society this season? Next year, we might be celebrating your nuptials to one of the kingdom’s finest gentlemen,” said Elizabeth as if she had read her sister’s mind.
Clementine eyes snapped open. She had been lost in deep thought. “That is not exactly why I am going to London, Elizabeth.” She giggled when she saw the confusion play on her sister’s face.
Like Clementine, Elizabeth’s appearance was a pristine canvas of superb porcelain, the kind of delicate shade that can only be found in the British Isles. Her hazel-coloured eyes scintillated curiously as she scrutinized her sister’s face in the Cheval mirror. She recognized the expression of stubbornness on her features that she had known since childhood. “What are you up to now?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“We can talk about that later. We haven’t the time now. It’s your wedding day, remember?”
Clementine fidgeted irritably because it was nearly time to go and she didn’t have any desire to discuss her future plans just yet. Also, Elizabeth had a big mouth. It was nigh impossible for her to keep a secret. Mother would be aware of her plans before the day was out if she told her. And that would invite an unwanted storm into the day’s proceedings. Besides, the time was soon afoot and her little sister would no longer be “Miss Elizabeth Delaney” but “Mrs Royce Ryder”.
“Come here, sister dearest,” said Clementine. She held up the veil that was in her hand and smiled encouragingly. “Time to put this on. We can’t have Royce getting a glimpse of the goods too soon.”
Elizabeth swallowed anxiously. She managed a little giggle despite the tension. “Where’s Mama? I can’t believe she’s disappeared again.”
Clementine pursed her full lips. “Don’t worry, she’ll be back soon. She won’t let you go out into the fray without a kiss and a few empty platitudes.”
The sisters laughed. “Yes, I am sure that she will say that I need to obey my husband in all things,” said Elizabeth.
“Mama always was a stickler for convention. Listen to me, little sister. Men are very easy to handle as long as you pay them compliments often enough. And when you require something of them, always be sure when he agrees that he thinks it was his idea all along.”
“Ha-ha, mama has that down to a perfection. I still don’t know how she persuaded papa to let me marry a simple gentleman with a lieutenant’s commission and no family wealth. Poor old Royce, he’s got to find patronage to climb the ranks.” Elizabeth sighed. “It’s just so unfair.”
“Yes, it is ridiculous that advancement does not have merit as a prerequisite. It is all about family connections and money. The army is full of fools with no ability. I pray for the time when women can vote and decide their own fates and attain an equal footing with the menfolk. Maybe, it will one day be a woman that reforms the army.”
“There is not much of a chance of that happening, Sister.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Have you heard of Florence Nightingale? I hear that she recently has taken up the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street in London. Now, there is a woman to emulate. There are even rumours of her setting up and leading a nursing corps to the east should Britain send the troops to fight the tsar.”
“Balderdash, Clementine. That will never happen. Women tending to men’s wounds…maybe for cleaning up duties after an operation,” countered Elizabeth.
Clementine wanted to say more on the subject that was so very close to her heart. To her mind, men, although physically superior, were not as strong as women. A woman could do anything a man could and she was going to prove it.
“Well, not if she is as docile and supplicant like a cat rubbing itself against a leg. You know, a bit like mother when she wants something from father. The fierce old battle-axe can be as saccharine as sweetmeats when she wants something,” she said instead in an attempt to change the direction of the conversation.
Both young women giggled hysterically.
“I heard that, Clementine,” said another voice.
The sisters spun around on their heels. Clementine nearly dropped the delicate white veil in fright.
“Mater,” squealed the girls in unison.
Their mother smiled affectionately from the doorframe. It was how she liked to be addressed. The Latin term for mother was far more suitable for young ladies than the childish terminologies of “mama”, “mummy” or even the more formal address of “mother”. She stood stoic and still by the door.
Her daughters were so much the same in appearance and yet…when it came to temperament, Clementine was the rebel. Due to her incomparable beauty, she had had suitors galore. And still, her mother worried that she would spend her life as a spinster. There just was no man in the realm that held a candle to her. She knew that it was her husband’s fault. He had bred an independent vixen of such proportion that no matter how lovely she was, no man would have the heart to propose. Not that he would ever get the chance to do so anyway.
Lady Leighton was the incarnation of the perfect Victorian lady if there ever was one. She was not beautiful. Yet, despite her middle-class origins she had style and grace. It had been something she had worked on assiduously since she was a girl. She boasted no aristocratic pedigree, and yet, she had come far in society. She often reminded her daughters that she was once a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria and the pride of her onetime position was still etched onto her face like an interminable tan.
“Come on girls, we haven’t got all day. Your father eagerly waits to take you down the aisle, Elizabeth. I mean it, hurry up. If the poor man has to wait a moment longer he’s going to pass out.”
They all laughed. The mood was lightened. The two young ladies immediately jutted into action. There were still a few minor preparations to be done. Clementine studied her sister’s reflection in the mirror. She had never looked so lovely, she decided. Royce Ryder was a lucky man indeed.
“Elizabeth, turn around and let’s get this on you,” ordered Clementine, holding up the veil.
“Must I wear that thing? Royce won’t be able to see my face with it all covered up.”
“He will be looking at it for the rest of his life, dear. I am sure that he can wait a few moments longer,” said mother, stepping closer.
“No buts. You know what is expected of you. The vicar would burst a vein if you appeared in the chapel not attired to perfection. Do you want to risk him having one of his little tantrums and annulling the nuptial day? You know what the man’s like and especially if he’s had one nip of the gin too many.”
Elizabeth shook her head. Obediently, she turned to face her sister. But before Clementine could put the veil on her, Elizabeth took a step back and spun around to face the mahogany Cheval mirror that stood close by. For a few heartbeats, she studied her reflection seriously. For a moment, Clementine thought that her sister was going to cry, but then as if she’d made up her mind, she again turned to face her mother and sister. The expression on her face was of utter dismay.
“Oh fiddlesticks, is this really the right dress? It is so white and fluffy.” She patted the flats of her hands on the bouncy tussocks of fabric that encircled her legs in a hoary mantle. “I look like one of Cook’s rotund meringues. Royce is bound to think he is marrying a snowy mountain.”
Clementine and her mother exchanged glances. They burst out laughing.
“I do. I knew it.” Elizabeth started pulling on her dress. “Take this hideous thing off me. The wedding is off. I am like some great big white cow. Not even an Indian Hindu would worship me.”
Mother and eldest daughter could not contain themselves. They were in hysterics. Clementine had to concede to herself that her sister did look a little like a pudgy snowflake. Seeing Elizabeth’s discomfort, she contained her mirth. “You look beautiful, Elizabeth. I am sure every Indian on the subcontinent would worship you if you were a cow.”
The tears threatened to drop off Elizabeth’s lashes and lids. She snivelled. “Really?” she squeaked.
“Of course. You are the epitome of the holy white cow.” Clementine had tears streaming down her cheeks. In contrast to Elizabeth’s, hers were of mirth. “All you have to do, is keep the bull in check until after the festivities.”
“Clementine! Stop this uncouth behaviour this very instant. I did not raise my daughters so that they could comport themselves like harlots in Covent Garden Market. For someone who doesn’t like the prospect of marriage, you certainly know a lot about the happenings between couples behind closed doors.”
“Mater, I assume what happens in the bedroom is one of the only advantages of having a man. For the rest, most men are like irritating children who only dream of soldiering and war,” said Clementine.
It was all that was needed. The sisters were one spirit again. They cried out in laughter. Mostly because of Clementine’s remark, however, the sight of their mother strutting around the room like a stuffed pelican hopping on one leg, tipped them over the edge.
“Alright, you two. Time to get serious again. Clementine, please finish off your sister’s attire, this very instant. And we shall have no further talk about what happens behind closed doors. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Mater,” said the girls in unison. They still had a little trouble hiding their hilarity.
Getting serious again, Elizabeth asked, “Mater, Clementine what do you think?”
Clementine swallowed. To her the dress looked horrendously uncomfortable with the tight corset and all of the frilly bits. She’d prefer riding breeches any day. She found that modern day women’s fashion was made for the benefit of men without any consideration for a lady’s comfort. Mater, on the other hand, knew exactly what to say.
“White is chosen right, come in blue and love will be true, yellow and she is ashamed of her fellow, red she wishes herself dead, black she’ll wish herself back, grey travel far away, pink and of you he'll always think, green I’m too ashamed to be seen.”
Elizabeth looked even more confused than before.
“Mater, my dress, should it be blue?” she asked.
“No darling, white is chosen right and now come on,” said mater sternly.
On cue, Clementine moved up to her sister and placed the veil over her face. It was a yarn of fine gauze of sheer cotton with elements of lace over her head. “You are so beautiful, Elizabeth. Royce is the luckiest man alive,” she said meaning it.
“Come on, come on,” urged their mother like a collie rounding up her flock.
“You go ahead, Mater, and make sure father is ready,” said Elizabeth.
Mother nodded. “Alright, but no dawdling. I want you outside quicker than it takes a puppy dog to wag its tail.” Mater left the room.
Clementine turned to her sister. “Alright, tell me. What’s on your mind?”
Elizabeth blushed. “You mentioned bulls and the happenings behind closed doors in married couple’s bedrooms…I was just wondering…what happens exactly and how is it done?”
Clementine was taken aback by the question. With her having already completed her season and finding a man, she had always assumed that her younger sister was far more advanced on that front. “Well, all I can tell you is what I know from books…”
“Books? Where on earth does one read about that kind of thing?”
Clementine saw that her sister was truly intrigued. “In papa’s library. While you were out chasing boys, I was always reading – remember?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, I do. Reading is good, Sister, but practicing an art is better. So, tell me about this book you read. I don’t have a clue what to do when I am alone with Royce later today.”
“Have you never done anything intimate? You have been seeing each other for ages now. You must have been able to escape the watchful eyes of your chaperones on occasion?”
“Oh, yes we did, but Royce was always the perfect gentleman. He said that he would not have me like a common tart in the bushes or the stables.” Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed. I was more than willing though. Sometimes, I believe that women are far more licentious than men. Take you for example, Clementine. You spend your time reading books on the subject.” She tittered impishly.
“I will have you know that is not all I read,” said Clementine, laughing along.
“Then do tell me of this book that reveals all?”
“It is an epistolary novel, written in the 1820’s…”
“What’s it called? Maybe I can sneak away from the festivities later and get a quick glimpse. I at least want to know what I am doing tonight.”
“The book is called The Lustful Turk.”
“How absolutely debauched – it sounds like a tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Tell me more?” Elizabeth giggled.
“You have a point there. I assume you have heard of the term “to sodomize”?”
Elizabeth nodded meekly. The expression on her face displayed her revulsion for the act.
“That is part of the story. This English noblewoman’s ship en route to the Orient, falls under an attack by Moorish pirates. They take her to their ruler, the Dey of Algiers, where she enters his harem. Strangely enough, she is allowed to write letters to her friend back in England. She starts to tell her of all of the sexual acts she has to submit to with her new master.”
Clementine’s eyes sparkled mischievously as they twinkled at her sister. She could see the slight flush on her cheeks as she pondered over the happenings within an eastern potentate’s halls for his women. There was no way that Elizabeth had the slightest inclination or imagination to conjure up such images. She watched on eagerly as her sister waited for her to continue the tale.
“Her friend writes back, expressing her disgust. The Dey intercepts her correspondence and arranges for her friend to be abducted. Then he stages a ruse by bidding for her at a slave market in the guise of a wealthy Frenchman. Ultimately, the two women friends and the Dey have a sort of ménage-à-trois until their master’s member gets cut off by another woman in the harem. Finally, he sends them back to England with it conserved in a jar of alcohol as a memory of their time with him.”
Elizabeth burst out laughing. It was infectious and soon had Clementine lost in merriment too. “That is truly the most vulgar thing I have ever heard. Do people actually read that kind of thing? It’s disgusting.”
“Papa obviously does,” said Clementine offhandedly, inducing the sisters to further hilarity.
“Clementine, will I be sodomized tonight? Is that what all men want?” asked Elizabeth with a worried contortion on her face.
“Good gracious no. Of course not. Royce is a gentleman and not some eastern potentate in a story. I am certain that his interests are altogether more natural. Now, come on, we have a wedding to get to. Just be yourself, Elizabeth and everything will turn out alright.”
They rushed out of the room and dashed down the corridor towards the staircase, leading down to the ornate hallway belonging to the Earl of Leighton’s country manor house. Their mother nattered some harsh encouragement and reprimanded them for having taken so long.
Father was another matter entirely. The man in his mid-fifties was equanimity incarnate. All he did was flash his daughters a big smile when he saw them. His kindness was clear to see in his soft grey eyes, lips that always curled upwards and the habitually contented expression on his features.
“Come along, girls. We have to rush to the chapel.” When everybody was aboard the carriage, father gave an order to the coachman to make haste. It was only a short distance, but it was nicer for Elizabeth to arrive like this.
A little over a half an hour later, Elizabeth stood in front of the altar with her husband to be. Elaborate bouquets of spring flowers lined the aisle. It had been Clementine’s idea. The vicar had opposed her at every front, but when she had an idea, there was no holding her back. Many fights had taken place over the issue. Only when Clementine had presented the vicar with some vintage cognac from her father’s cellar did he relent to her plans.
It was Royce’s turn to speak the vows repeated out of the Common Book of Prayer from the 1662 edition. He looked so handsome in his frock coat coloured in claret-red. He had a flower favour in a specially tailored-hole in his collar. He wore a white waistcoat and trousers of lavender doeskin. He could not have looked happier as he began to speak, while he gazed at the woman he loved fondly.
“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Not once did Elizabeth take her eyes off her husband’s face as he slipped the ring onto the fourth finger on her left hand. She loved how his soft lips moved and the jut of his chin that betrayed his strong will, and most importantly his eyes - deep brown pools of kindness. There was nothing more in the world that she would rather have. The fact that she was now Mrs Royce Ryder filled her heart with joy.
The couple lowered themselves to their knees in front of the vicar. The man with the bulbous red nose from too much drink began to speak.
“Let us pray - O Eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all mankind, Giver of all spiritual grace, the Author of everlasting life: send thy blessing upon these thy servants, this man and this woman, whom we bless in thy Name; that, as Isaac and Rebecca lived faithfully together, so these persons may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made, whereof this Ring given and received is a token and pledge, and may ever remain in perfect love and peace together, and live according to thy laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The priest joined their right hands together, and said, “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” The sermon continued for a while longer with various psalms and song. Finally, the newlyweds walked out of the church. In typical Victorian fashion, they did not acknowledge their friends and family on their way out – their gazes remained fixated to the front.
The sun shone brightly on Saturday the 15th of June 1854. The birds in the trees, of which there were many on the parkland of the earl’s estate in Kent, were singing a merry tune. It had been a joyous procession back from the family chapel near the village to the family’s manor house for the celebrations. Rice had been thrown in front of the chapel in imitation of the ancient Roman custom of throwing nuts. Now, Elizabeth was engaged in a slightly more modern custom.
“One, two, three, ready,” squealed Elizabeth with glee.
“Do it, throw the bouquet,” squealed a gaggle of eager single women, standing behind her. The bride remained silent and mustered all of her concentration as if she had the responsibility for the world in her hands. To her it was essential the wedding bouquet reached the right person.
“Alright, here goes. One, two, three,” she warbled as she hurled the bridal bouquet of magnificent white English roses into the air.
While the posy of roses arched up, in the hope that fate would choose them, the eager women whizzed about in a mob of confusion. Clementine just stood there laughing and rolling her eyes at her sex’s silly antics. She thought that the entire display was outlandishly humorous. But as destiny would have it, the floral bunch serendipitously landed into her hands that had somehow found their way to the front of her body. Clementine was so surprised that she nearly dropped it with fumbling fingers.
“Well done Clementine,” shouted her mother encouragingly.
“It’s about time,” yelled one of the lads from the village.
“Here, here,” came from another.
“Well done, Clementine. I wonder who the poor blighter will be,” yelled Royce in jest.
“He has been my brother-in-law for barely an hour and already he makes quips at my expense,” countered Clementine. Those around them laughed.
The other women who came to congratulate her warmly, overwhelmed Clementine. It took her the better part of an hour to get around to her sister. When they finally did manage, they hugged.
“I knew you’d be next, Clementine,” said Elizabeth grinning stupidly. “There is a good man out there somewhere waiting for you.”
“We’ll see about that. For the moment, I have other plans,” said Clementine seriously.
“What could be more important than getting married?” she said, shaking her head in frustration at her elder sister’s obduracy.
“Oh, come on, little sister, let’s not argue about this topic again. This is your day. You’re married to the man you’ve always wanted. Congratulations, I’m so happy for you.”
Elizabeth smiled wanly and accepted her sister’s embrace. “Alright, you will get away with it this time, but don’t you dare think that you have fobbed me off. On the contrary, I want to know everything about your plans.”
“Darling Wife, I’d like you to meet someone. He is an inspiration to us all in the regiment,” interrupted Royce. He couldn’t have looked more proud. His chest swelled out as if he were on parade.
Elizabeth spun around. At the sight of the imposing figure standing next to her husband, she instinctively curtseyed politely and babbled a few inarticulate greetings.
Clementine, on the other hand, was so taken aback by the earl’s sudden appearance that she didn’t move a muscle. She stood frozen for a few heartbeats, admiring his good looks until she, too, automatically curtseyed under his withering gaze that was laced with lust.
“May I present Lord Cardigan, my commanding officer,” said Royce with flourish and a little bow.
The 7th Earl of Cardigan was dressed in an extravagant military uniform that consisted of a tight-fitting navy-blue coat with heavy gold frogging cordage across the front of it, golden epaulettes and maroon-red breeches with yellow stripes. His face was fashionably whiskered and stern and arrogant as he studied the two women with his piercing azure gaze. It was well known throughout England that he was still a notorious philanderer and womanizer despite of his age.
“Ladies,” he said in a deep scratchy voice that betrayed the consumption of too much liquor and the smoking of too many cigars. At the same time, Lord Cardigan tilted his head to one side. Like scanners, his hard blue eyes bored into the women lewdly. “All this swish and tit gets me spiffing nose up,” he said crudely.
Elizabeth and Clementine blushed crimson at the aristocrat’s libidinous remarks. Not able to criticize his superior officer, Royce laughed nervously as he continued voicing his lecherous intent with blatant disregard for the presence of ladies.
“I shall have to fetch off tonight, young man. Being out on a horse all week with my cherrybums always makes me randified.”
“I say, My Lord. Wouldn’t you agree that that kind of talk is better suited for the officer’s mess? You wouldn’t want the ladies to know all of your sordid little secrets and prodigious talent between the sheets.”
Clementine watched Royce titter like a fool. She decided that he was a rather pleasant man to look at, but she disliked his chin and crabby mouth. She concluded that he was no leader of men but more of a follower. Her biggest wish was that he would be good to her sister.
Her gaze did not linger there for long. Her eyes flew open and she bit on her lower lip. Before her stood the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes upon. Also, the new arrival had courage to be able to state his views so clearly in the presence of a superior.
“May I present, Lord Stirling Whitt Whittaker, son to the Duke of Kenbridge and a soon to be captain in the 11th Hussars,” said Royce, finally recovering from his friend’s interruption.
Clementine’s gaze shifted to Cardigan who cleared his throat and appeared to turn redder still. It was evident from his bearing that he had enjoyed a very privileged upbringing. No one save the queen told this man what to do. His arrogance and breed allowed him to get away with murder.
It was common knowledge in England that Cardigan had no qualms in challenging people to duels if he considered them displeasing. On top of that, Clementine saw him for what he was: a bigoted, misogynous and pompous twit that was immoral and licentious. To him, women were mere objects for pleasure and nothing more.
She looked back at the Johnny-come-lately. Clementine hardly heard Royce babbling on about how much of a friend and an accomplished horseman he was. His smaragdine eyes held her in a vice. They only briefly left her face when he paid his respects to the newlyweds and saluted smartly to the earl. The latter made a few more vulgar remarks, but other than that he was not perturbed by the young captain’s interruption. He even spoke of accepting his appointment to an officer’s position.
“I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, My Lady.”
Clementine felt goosebumps crawl over her arms and legs. “Ah, thank you, My Lord.” She nearly wanted to pull her glove-clad hand away when the officer took it and lightly grazed the back of it with his lips. “Very nice to meet you too,” she added lamely, at the same time regretting every word.
“Lord Cardigan assures me that I will make a fine officer and a gentleman of the 11th Hussars, darling. And there is also talk of war with the Russians and we are to be sent over there,” said Royce confidently as he attempted to reoccupy centre-stage.
The earl just grunted in agreement. The colour on Elizabeth’s face turned a lighter shade of white at the news of war.
Clementine still studied Lord Cardigan with an angry glint in her eye. She so despised chauvinistic men like him. Furtive glimpses to the cavalry officer softened her mien. When he would look at her, she would look away. She felt the heat rise up her neck to her face. Clementine did not know what was happening to her. Hot flushes alternated with delightful little shivers; they danced a merry little waltz up and down her spine.
“This comes as a surprise, darling,” was all Elizabeth managed to say.
“Yes, the Tsar presses for a port in the warmth and access to the Mediterranean. For this, he must control the Dardanelles. The Ottoman Empire is not what it once was. The land with the onetime most fearsome infantry in the world is now the sick man of Europe. They lose one territory after another and Great Britain cannot allow the Russians to snap them up. It is time for us to send in the army,” said Cardigan imperiously.
“My Lord, those infantrymen you speak of were the Janissaries, if I am not mistaken. But tell me why the army must go. Surely, our navy is more than enough to keep the Russians boxed up in the Black Sea,” said Clementine, angrily trying to free herself from the captivating hold of the intense green orbs pooled in milky-white spheres.
Cardigan cleared his throat gutturally. He was obviously put out at having to discuss geopolitical and martial matters with a woman and a young one at that. “Yes, Janissaries were the name of the soldiers. At first, they were taken into the regiment by coercion. The Turks used to kidnap young Christian boys and train them into the most efficient killing unit. However, put your mind to pretty things, young lady.”
He turned away from Clementine to look at her more docile sister. “This husband of yours will make a very fine Cherrybum in his tight breeches that leave nothing to the imagination. I am sure it will have you begging for it,” said Lord Cardigan, patting Royce on the shoulder paternally.
“What’s a Cherrybottom, your Lordship?” asked Clementine before she could keep her tongue in check. She had barely registered the earl’s rudeness. But she blushed crimson when Stirling chuckled. The initial embarrassment soon turned to annoyance. Had she misjudged the young officer? Was he another chauvinistic bigot like the earl?
“What’s a Cherrybottom? What’s a Cherrybottom? They are called Cherrybums. Do you boast no education, woman?” guffawed Cardigan arrogantly, totally forgetting Clementine’s earlier display of intellect.
Royce joined in his lordship’s mirth and Elizabeth just stood there stunned. She was still in shock that her husband might soon be sent off to war. And Clementine just thought, I could bang their noodles together until their doodles drop off.
“Cherrybums are what his lordship calls the men of the eleventh, My Lady,” said Stirling. He was deeply moved by the young woman. It took all of his effort to maintain his habitual stoic poise. Looking at her, he would have liked nothing more than to whisk her away and talk about the future. “They got the name after the men of the brigade who hid in cherry trees from the French in the last Great War.”
“I see,” said Clementine, immediately softening to the young lord.
“You should find yourself your own Cherrybum, girl. The gentlemen in my regiment would jump at the chance to court a young lady such as you. Good pedigree, what is what,” said Cardigan addressing Clementine haughtily. He did not register the burgeoning connection between the two young people. His words galloped over them like a three-quarter ton charger.
But before Clementine could answer or continue speaking to Stirling, Cardigan carried on as if her opinion on the matter was of no interest to him.
“How old are you, girl? Nine and twenty? About time you got married before you’ve completely outlived it. By God, woman, the dangers for you to squeeze a baby out of your archaic body increase with every passing year. Not to mention your looks. It’s the face powder that gets us men and the baking powder that keeps us,” he said nudging Royce in the ribs jovially.
Cardigan laughed uncouthly. Clementine could’ve strangled him for making her a full eight years older than she actually was. However, the icy expression on Stirling’s face made her frown. If she didn’t know any better, the man was about to punch the earl. She watched him clench and unclench his fists belligerently. She must do something before he gets himself into a position he’d regret.
“Fine filly such as yourself should have no other ambition in life other than straddling a young man,” said Cardigan winking lewdly.
“There’s more to life than being some man’s filly,” spat Clementine, getting her word in, in the nick of time, and before Stirling blew a cap.
“More to life than a man, woman? Whatever next! Best choose yourself the finest stallion in the stables before you’re dragged off to the slaughterhouse,” said Cardigan dismissively. It was obvious that he found independent woman like Clementine distasteful.
“If you must know, your lordship, I’m going to play my part when the time comes. When Britain’s young men are called upon to serve queen and country, I will be there to support them.” she swallowed deeply. “And it won’t be as some young filly waiting to be mounted by a randified stallion, but as a nurse.” She spat angrily.
“Women joining the army. Now that is a ridiculous notion. In Roman times, there used to be a followers camp for mistresses and whores. Maybe we should reintroduce that.” Cardigan examined the scene before him. “Is there anywhere where I can get a drink?”
“Do you know who you remind of, My Lord?” asked Clementine sweetly.
Cardigan arched his brows.
“The lustful Turk, My Lord. If you are not careful, maybe you also will find your manhood chopped off and placed into a jar for the woman that did it to cherish.” Without waiting for a reply, Clementine turned on her heels and left the bewildered Cardigan who cleared his throat nervously. Elizabeth burst out laughing. She couldn’t hold herself despite Royce’s attempts to quieten her.
Stirling smiled. He had never met a woman such as this before. He had thought to intervene and come to her defence throughout the exchange, but somehow he felt that that would have only spurred her on. Clementine was a highly intelligent and independent woman, graced with the most infinitely exquisite looks. He promised himself that late morning that he would see her again.
“That woman reminds me of my ex-wife. She, too, was the most damned bad-tempered and extravagant bitch in the kingdom,” said Cardigan, stalking off in the direction of a servant holding a bottle of champagne.
Royce laughed. Elizabeth could have slapped him, but fortunately, Clementine never heard what Cardigan had said. Stirling had already left to speak to Royce’s parents before he departed for his father’s estate.
The banquet that followed was a glorious affair. Myriad trestle tables with crisp white tablecloths that had garlands of flowers draped down the sides of them graced the parkland belonging to the earl’s estate. There was a small band playing music and after lunch there would be dancing. Clementine sat next to an extremely tedious young gentleman who kept droning on about the tensions between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. They were at war and Great Britain was soon to pledge to help poor little Turkey, also known as “the sick man of Europe.”
All Clementine could think about was the war and her sister. Was there really going to be a war? She had never experienced one or lived through one. All she knew was that they were brutal affairs. Her reading had taught her that. Young men always wanted to go off and fight them. It was the way of the world that old fools like Cardigan decided when and how young men like Royce fought.
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