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Here In Africa: Christmas At The Assembly

...‘And you, dear Miss Ernleigh,’ a cultured voice interrupted the introductions. ‘I take it you are also here at the invitation of Lady Chisholm?’

Glancing up, she took in the imposing figure of the Duke, a richly liveried man-servant at his side.

Rising quickly to her feet, she dropped him a deep curtsey. ‘Yes indeed, Your Grace,’ she replied, while glancing at him with brilliant green eyes through a thick fringe of lashes. Her eyes gleamed as she noted his interest...

Belinda meets her match at a ball in the Bath Assembly rooms, but will she be happy?

Barbara Durlacher tells an intriguing love story.

The air was so cold it crackled. Looking up, she could see the first of the snow flurries and pulled her shawl closer around her head. Her head-dress, a poor affair, was made up of a few sprigs of mistletoe and a small bunch of holly, but it was the best she could manage from the denuded garden after the great storms of early autumn.

When the coach drew up, she beckoned the coachman to dismount and help her over the treacherous ice and even with the greatest care they had to tread carefully to ensure that neither fell.

‘Will the horses be all right, William?’ she enquired, wondering if they would be able to cover the distance to the Bath Assembly Rooms for the Grand Christmas Ball.

‘Should be fine, Missie,” William replied confidently. ‘The roads have been sanded and the sweepers are keeping the crossings free of ice and snow. Never fear, dear lady, Thomas and I will take the greatest care, and by travelling slowly we will do all we can to ensure your safety.’

The Assembly Rooms were a beacon of light and the gaiety and warmth of the assembled crowd, the hundreds of candles and the sounds of the orchestra tuning up tantalised her senses, but she turned her nose up at the smell of unwashed bodies which overlaid the faint scent of perfume, powdered curls and rich brocade resurrected from the camphor chests in which fancy ballgowns were stored. Months of heavy winter clothes made no concessions to the festive season and she realised that this unfashionable crowd were as unused to Yuletide festivities as she was.

‘Merry Christmas, good sir,’ she greeted the rosy-cheeked Master of Ceremonies who welcomed her at her entry to the ballroom of this famous meeting place, as she glanced around looking for her friends.

‘Madam, follow the footman and he will lead you to your table. Lady Chisholm and her party arrived earlier and are enjoying the music and a light repast,’ he replied as she, bowing to right and left, made her way to her place. Taking a glass of mulled wine from the footman, she swallowed thirstily, and reached for another. Sipping slowly, she warmed her frozen hands in the folds of her gown as she waited to be introduced to the group.

‘And you, dear Miss Ernleigh,’ a cultured voice interrupted the introductions. ‘I take it you are also here at the invitation of Lady Chisholm?’

Glancing up, she took in the imposing figure of the Duke, a richly liveried man-servant at his side.

Rising quickly to her feet, she dropped him a deep curtsey. ‘Yes indeed, Your Grace,’ she replied, while glancing at him with brilliant green eyes through a thick fringe of lashes. Her eyes gleamed as she noted his interest, and she smiled demurely before dropping her gaze.

‘Will you ask Her Ladyship to introduce me?’ he requested quietly. She turned to Lady Chisholm, a noted matchmaker, who had been watching their meeting with interest.

Quietly she voiced her request into the ear-trumpet of that formidable lady.

‘What’s that? What’s that she says?’ bellowed the old dame shamelessly, exposing Belinda’s shy request to the world without the slightest concern for her sensibilities.

‘Want to be introduced to Duke William, do ya, indeed. Well, you’re not wasting much time, I must say!’ the old harridan repeated loudly, making sure that all at the table would recognise the importance of the encounter. Nevertheless, she beckoned him over with an imperious wave of her fan, and made the necessary introductions. Not long afterwards the young couple formed up for the minuet.

‘Do you hunt, Miss Ernleigh?’ queried the Duke leading her back to the table at the end of the set.

‘Yes, Milord, I do. One of my few pleasures is to ride my black hunter Moonraker and I will certainly be present at the Meet at Squire Awkright’s on Boxing Day,’ she replied quickly, hoping she would be able to charm her old guardian into lending her his favourite hunter. Nobody but Sir Joseph was allowed to ride the four-year old stallion, considered by many to be the finest horseflesh in the county, but far too strong for a lady.

Several days of determined persuasion were necessary before Sir Joseph gave his permission and her cheeks were flushed with triumph as she settled herself into Moonraker’s saddle and hitched her leg over the pommel. The Boxing Day meet was popular and always well attended and Belinda was determined to make a good showing. This was one of the few occasions when she knew she would impress as, clad in a green velvet riding-habit which showed off her excellent figure, with her glowing copper curls swept up under a fashionable top hat and veil, she knew she was the picture of feminine allure. Gathering up the reins she touched her heel lightly to the big horses’ flanks, and they trotted out of the stable yard. Mick, the Head Groom followed obediently behind while never taking his eyes off the young miss riding side-saddle for the first time.

The earlier freeze had turned to rain and the lanes were deep in mud, badly rutted and pitted where the London coach had travelled through, but nothing could damp her enthusiasm. She was determined to enjoy every moment and made up her mind that Moonraker would make her fortune.

The yelping of the hounds brought the horsemen to attention and with a quick bugle call the riders set off at a gallop. Soon she had forged her way to the head of the field and few could pass her as she jumped her fences, cleared her ditches and galloped fearlessly across country.

‘Look at that girl, finest seat in the county. Danged if I’m not going to marry her,’ said the Duke admiringly, as he pulled his horse’s head round and forced him to jump a ditch. Afterwards he would declare that it was her fearless riding that made him propose, and before the year was new, Belinda had accepted him.

And did they live happily ever after? Well, Yes and No.

If you feel that experimentation in marriage leads to happiness, then the answer is yes; but if you think that an independent woman must submit to a man, Belinda was not your gal.

She preferred Mick the groom, and many and varied were the tales she told her grandchildren after the Duke’s early death from a fall when hunting, about her only visit to the Bath Assembly Rooms and the changes it brought to her life.

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