Some two hours before this desperate cry was heard in the garden, Lance Corporal Duval of the Wyvernshire Militia, left to guard the bunkhouse wherein the miscreant MacDonald had been confined, had turned to his comrade Private Valentine with a grin.
“This is poor sport, Ollie - MacDonald is surely out for the count. What say you we leave him to guard himself and join the game? There is still time for a hand or two, and I have three shillings burning a hole in my pocket!”
The pair listened at the door for a few more minutes, but all the sound they heard was the heavy snoring of a man deep in his cups, and they slipped quietly out of the bunkhouse and headed for the mess, where a riotous game of Speculation was well under way. Had they remained at their post a while longer, they might have heard an abrupt ending of the reprobate’s snores; a rattle at the door handle; a series of heavy thuds, and at the last, the tinkle of breaking glass and the scraping sound of a window being forced.
Chloë had been enjoying the Ball in spite of Lieutenant Thompson’s absence, and had danced as much as she had wished to before retiring from the floor in happy exhaustion. She sat with her younger sisters in between their own vigorous assays on enemy territory, but as their excitement rose, so her tolerance of its shrillness waned, and she sat for a while with her parents and Doctor and Mrs Levy, then, as their conversation strayed to old acquaintances whom she did not know, she made her excuses and moved to the open door which led to the terrace.
How cool and still the night was! She stepped out onto the terrace, enjoying the sweet air and the scents of the garden. The flagstones that made up the path were bathed in moonlight as though to invite her to step upon them, and she gladly accepted the invitation, wandering through the flower beds and admiring the fine statues and fountains that adorned the garden. All at once the peace was broken by a gruff voice near her ear.
“There’s the little doxy herself! Come here, girl, I’ve been looking for you!”
Another round of dancing had begun in the Pump Rooms, and Colonel Wolfe was partnering his wife in a promenade, but of a sudden he became aware of a commotion at the entrance, and he broke away from the dance, escorting Mrs Wolfe to the side of the room. At the door, Captain Copeland was in urgent conversation with a tall, powerful looking man who was scanning the room.
“Barratt, my dear old fellow! You are arrived - thank you, with all my heart. You have seen the man - is it he?”
But Major General Michael Barratt of the Dorsetshire Regiment shook his head wearily. He had ridden with all the speed his horse could muster and had arrived at the barracks, only to find the bird flown, and a very sorry looking Lance Corporal Duval hanging his head in shame.
“If I know him of old - if it is he - this is just the place to find him - so many opportunities to finagle a situation to embarrass and compromise a young lady. Has he shown an interest in any lady since the regiment has been stationed in Holby?”
The Colonel paled beneath his weathered complexion. “Chloë,” he said. “My daughter!”
“Where is she, sir?” Lieutenant Thompson had caught up with the Major-General whom he had escorted all the way from Dorchester, and though he was tired and stiff from the long ride, the name of the younger Miss Wolfe gave him renewed energy and purpose.
“She went into the gardens alone to take the air,” her father cried, turning to the terrace doors in alarm. But Lieutenant Thompson was away before him, Captain Copeland close at his heels.
Chloë gasped as a hand grasped her arm, and she felt herself pulled bodily into a secluded arbour. She recoiled from the stale breath and bleary face of none other than Captain MacDonald, and crying out in pain from the vice-like grip on her arm.
“Now now, girl, less of that, we don’t want anyone to find us here, do we? What would it look like, hey, a so-called innocent young lady all cuddled up with a soldier in a dark corner?”
She quieted her cry, but said in confusion, “They told me you were locked up! Oh, why will you not leave me be?!”
He laughed, swaying unsteadily. “Because you’re a little gold mine, that’s why. That sister of yours, not worth the effort - I doubt she’s the marryin’ kind anyway, but you? One word from me about this little tryst, and your reputation won’t be worth a fig. What’s it worth to you now, though, hey? I should say fifty pounds would stop my mouth for now.”
She tried again to shake his hand away, but to no avail. “But there is nothing to tell - this is no tryst! I shan’t pay you - and I have no money of my own to pay with even if I wanted to!”
He leaned in over her, his balance as badly affected by his insobriety as was his judgement.
“Society loves a scandal, my dear - if I fling a little crumb of mud, it will turn into a bally great landslide, and bring you down with it. A lady’s good name is her what-d’ye-call-it, y’know - rarer than rubies and all that. Fifty pounds, or I’ll ruin you in a heartbeat!”
“But I tell you, there is no money!”
“That’s your little problem to solve, then, ain’t it m’dear? Fifty pounds by Friday next, or my price goes up to a hundred guineas.”
Chloë was shaking now, in anger as much as in fear, but she was resolute.
“There will be no money, and no-one will believe your wicked lies anyway, so tell away!”
He staggered, but recovered himself. “How about if they ain’t lies, then? How about if I kiss that proud little mouth of yours - how about that?”
“You wouldn’t dare!” she cried. “Oh, if Lieutenant Thompson were here, he would -”
“But he ain’t here, is he! That little milksop wouldn’t raise a hand to me, even if you begged him to.” He laughed at the thought of the young puppy of a lieutenant daring to stand up to him, and doubling over with laughter, he caught Chloë’s other elbow to steady himself, gripping hard.
“Get off me - get off me, I say! Release me - please, I beg you!”
All at once, several things happened. Chloë heard Berenice cry out in alarm; there was a flurry of noise and colour and light; she heard her father call her name, and she felt MacDonald release his grip upon her. An instant later, she saw why, as she beheld, in descending seniority of rank, a tall man of her father’s age who bore the insignia of Major-General, the Colonel himself, Captain Copeland - and most marvelously of all, Lieutenant Thompson, who had launched himself into the shadow of the arbour and punched her assailant squarely on the nose.
“Unhand her, MacDonald, you dog!” he cried, but as the drunken Captain swayed like a tree about to fall, and then followed its inevitable trajectory to the ground, Major-General Barratt’s voice boomed out.
“A wretched cur he is, but his name’s not MacDonald, d*mn him! Edward Campbell, I arrest you on a charge of desertion from your post, and upon conduct unbecoming an officer. Seize him!”
Lieutenant Thompson left off rubbing his sore knuckles, and he and Captain Copeland picked Campbell up by his arms and held him pinioned between them. Chloë, who had rushed to her father’s protection, ignored her dastardly attacker and stared in wonder at the Lieutenant, who blushed under her gaze, but who stood proudly - and not a little amazed at his own actions. He returned her look, as taken with her beauty as she was with his courage, and with a smile, the Colonel thought to himself that Lady Nalyor’s injunction to forego the usual order of events had come not a moment too soon.
It had all happened so quickly that although they had been so close at hand, Bernie and Serena only now rushed into the arbour, astounded to see the party gathered there, and in such dramatic formation. Bernie went at once to her sister, to reassure herself that she was not hurt, but beside her, Serena took in the scene, gave a gasp, and with her hand to the necklace that adorned her throat, she turned upon her heel and ran.
“So MacDonald was an assumed name - he was Campbell all along?” Captain Copeland had handed the prisoner over to Sergeant-Major Fletcher, who had marched him off with an air of a cat who had finally caught a most troublesome mouse, and now the officers had gathered in a drawing room quite removed from the ballroom. Chloë and Bernie had joined them by default, and Chloë clung now to her sister’s arm, though her countenance was fixed firmly and adoringly upon that of her rescuer.
“Oh, of course!” exclaimed Major di Lucca. “How better to hide a Campbell than behind a MacDonald!” At the questioning look Chloë directed at him, he explained, “The two great warring Highland Clans. They were deadly enemies, and in the end, the Campbells slew the men of the Clan MacDonald in their beds. A greater act of treachery was never seen in Scotland, and it seems that Edward Campbell’s nature is true to his name,” he said fiercely.
Bernie, who had thus far been absorbed in tending to her sister, turned her head sharply. “Edward Campbell? But I know that name. Why, was not that the name of the man affianced to -”
But with a most uncharacteristic abandonment of manners, her Papa spoke over her.
“Berenice my dear, whatever has become of your friend Miss McKinnie? She was with you in the garden, was she not? Perhaps you should find her and reassure yourself that she is quite well.”
“O! I do not know where she is, Papa! She was with me one moment, and the next, she was gone - but I should stay with Chloë,” she said, torn between her twin loyalties.
“I am quite well, Berenice,” Chloë told her. “Papa is right, you should find her - seeing Lieutenant Thompson’s heroic defence of me may have shocked her, and you should tend to her.”
Colonel Wolfe held his hand out to his eldest daughter and led her from the room, and for a long moment, the officers within heard the low murmur of voices beyond the heavy oak door, punctuated by a cry of distress from Berenice.
Captain Copeland rose and moved to the door. Stepping outside, he cleared his throat and said gently, “Miss Wolfe, I think you might start by looking to the roof terrace, for I saw Miss McKinnie run from the garden and take the stairs there. Here,” he said, holding a soft throw that he had taken from a divan, “Take this with you, for it will be chilly up there.” Beneath the cover of the blanket, he squeezed her hand, and whispered, “Courage, dear heart! It seems there is another damsel in need of rescue tonight.”
She took the blanket and the sentiment gratefully, and casting a last look at her father, she quickly left the room and made for the roof.
Captain Copeland had judged well: it was indeed cold on the roof, and as Bernie reached the top of the stairs, she saw Serena standing at the balustrade with her arms about herself. She was looking out over the grounds with eyes that seemed to see nothing, and there was an anguished look upon her face. Wordlessly, Bernie draped the soft blanket about her shoulders and stood beside her, an arm drawing her close. They stood thus for some moments, and then Serena spoke, her voice dull and desperate.
“I am ruined,” she said. “He has followed me here, and he will ruin me.”
“Serena, no,” Bernie said soothingly. “It is he who is ruined. He will stand trial in a closed court with none to hear him but Major-General Barratt, who has brought the charge, and one other witness to see that justice is done - and that witness will be my Papa. That man can do you no more harm now.”
Serena turned to her, eyes wide. “You speak as though you know what I speak of, but you cannot!” she said.
“I think I do, Serena. Papa has been investigating the events surrounding your engagement and your father’s distress, and he has explained all to me. Come, let us sit - here, there is a bench.”
She drew Serena over to the little bench, and they sat together beneath the blanket. Bernie took Serena’s hand.
“Shall I tell you a story?” she asked. “It has happy and sad moments, and cruel ones too, but I think it may have a happy ending of sorts. Tell me if I have the particulars wrong in any detail.”
And she told the tale that her father had recounted to her outside the drawing room.
“And when the cruel soldier saw the woman he was engaged to marry holding hands with her friend, embracing her friend - even, perhaps, kissing her friend - he thought that he had found a better way than accepting her dowry to take her father’s money. He broke the engagement, and she did not protest, for she did not love him, but once the family had returned home, he preyed upon her father, saying that he would ruin her if he did not receive enough money to buy his silence. But his price grew ever greater, and her father grew ever poorer and more worried, until his poor heart could take it no more, and he died, never having spoken a word of it to her daughter or his wife. He kept her secret safe, even at so great a cost, for he loved her so dearly.”
“Oh, Papa!” Serena wept. “He knew, and did not disown me?”
“He knew, and did not judge you,” Bernie corrected her gently. “He knew, and protected you in the way he thought best, though I am so sorry to tell you that it cost him so very dearly,” she said sadly. “Well, since then, it seems that the scoundrel has made blackmail and extortion his fortune, though it is one that he drinks away as soon as he has it in his hand. For all I know, you may not have been the first family to suffer so at his hands, but my family shall certainly be the last. You are free of him now - we are free of him.”
So overcome was Serena that she did not understand the import of Bernie’s words, and for a while she wept as Bernie held her close. Shortly she recovered herself, and asked cautiously, “And you are not afraid to be seen with me? Not disgusted to know of the true nature of my friendship with Maria?”
Bernie laughed softly and held her more closely. “Of course not, dearest Serena. Did I not say that this story might have a happy ending?”
Serena looked at her, the confusion in her eyes falling away as Bernie brought her hand to Serena’s cheek, just as she had done earlier when they had been interrupted.
“Oh, Serena,” she murmured. “You have brought such joy to me, and such understanding of myself. I had thought you scared of touch, scared of intimacy, but now I see that your fear was only of discovery - yet through you, I have discovered myself!” Her hand caressed the softness of Serena’s cheek, slid into hair that had become loosened as Serena had run to the terrace. “Tell me I am wrong, and I will stop,” Bernie whispered.
Serena looked at her in wonder, the tears dry now upon her cheek, and the softest smile gracing her lips.
“You are not wrong,” she said, and then neither of them spoke but in the silent language of love.
“Mrs Wolfe, I do not like to take your kindness for granted, but I fear I must,” Mrs McKinnie said in a querulous voice. “I have been taken quite bilious with the heat and the noise, and must return home at once to recover in a darkened room. But I do not wish to spoil Serena’s evening, nor the chance of her meeting someone… appropriate,” she simpered. “Might you be kind enough to ask the Colonel to fetch her home at the end of the Ball?”
“I am sorry to hear that you are unwell,” Mrs Wolfe said sympathetically. “And certainly we can bring Serena home - but let us invite her to stay a day or two with us at Keller Hall instead, and then you may recover at leisure. Does not that sound a better plan?”
She prevailed upon the ever obliging Captain Copeland to hand Mrs McKinnie carefully into a carriage and convey her homewards, and as he drove away, he cast a glance up to the roof. Even the bold Captain had grace to blush a little as he turned his attention swiftly back to the road, but he smiled happily all the way to his destination, for his soul was that of a true romantic.
The treacherous Edward Campbell had been taken back to a cell more secure than the bunkhouse; Mrs McKinnie had been driven home to recover from her megrim, and Jasmine and Donatella had been brought back into the bosom of their family by their Mama, who had kept a stern eye upon them all evening.
“Come along now girls, it is time we retired - it is late, and Chloë will need to rest after her ordeal,” she said, though in truth, Chloë looked more lively than she had ever been as she danced in the arms of that most unlikely of heroes, Lieutenant Derwood Thompson. The girls made much fuss about having to leave the ball before it was quite finished, but though they were wilful, they were obedient girls, and with a pout, Jasmine asked if she had not better find Berenice as well?
“I have asked your sister to ensure that Miss McKinnie is quite well before they retire,” Colonel Wolfe said. “Captain Copeland will bring them home when they are quite ready. Now come, let us be away home,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.
When Captain Copeland returned to the Pump Rooms from his errand of mercy, he had thought to make his way to the roof terrace, calling out a warning long before he reached his friends, but he found that they had rejoined the dancing, as bright eyed and merry as ever any young lady who danced on a spring evening. As the dance came to an end, they came to him laughing and blushing, and they greeted one another like old friends. He offered them each an arm, and walked them proudly across the ballroom, and out into the coach yard.
“Your father asked that I drive you home,” he said, “But I wonder whether you might like to take the reins yourself, Miss Wolfe? Only I think I have established something of an understanding with the young man in the blue silk,” he said with a wink, and Bernie laughed as he handed them up.
“And it will save you the trouble of returning the carriage in the morning,” she said helpfully. “A most efficient solution. Happy hunting, Captain!”
She clicked her tongue and shook the reins, and they set off towards home. By unspoken agreement, they took a scenic route back to Keller Hall, for the night was too perfect to end yet, and they talked long of their happiness and their hopes.
“How shall we live, do you suppose?” Serena asked, nestling into the crook of Bernie’s arm as she drew the blanket close around them.
“Why, we shall be companions, just as Miss March is Lady Naylor’s companion. Captain Copeland has spoken to me of how it may be managed with all respectability. I have not had the chance to show you yet, but there is a dower house at Keller Hall which has long been uninhabited - it is little more than a moss house or chaumière, really, but it will suffice, and we shall make it our home. What do you say to that?”
“Oh, Bernie, I say y- O!”
For suddenly, the wheel of the carriage had dropped into a rut in the road, and the vehicle would have overturned had it not been for Bernie’s skilful handling. Bernie hopped down from the driver’s seat and inspected the damage, which was not severe, but the axle had snapped clean in two. She looked at it shaking her head, for it was clear that their journey had come to an end.
“There is nothing for it - we shall have to walk,” she said, and Serena laughed.
“You know that is no great hardship,” she said, “though I could wish for my stout boots rather than these dainty pumps.
But as fate would have it, the axle had broken not half a mile from the Griffin Arms, and the light shone cheerily from within, indicating that someone at least was still awake.
Bernie rapped upon the door, which in due course was opened by Mr Griffin himself, clad in his nightgown and cap.
“Ladies!” he exclaimed, “You are just in time, for I was about to extinguish the lamp and retire.” But then his face fell and he looked uncertainly at them. “We are very busy, I fear, due to the influx of visitors for the Ball. I do not like to prevail upon you again, but alas -”
Bernie and Serena clutched each other’s hands tightly in an effort not to betray themselves through their laughter as he continued:
“There is but one chamber.”