The past, as we have been told so many times, is a foreign country where things are done differently. This may be true – indeed it patently is true when it comes to morals or customs, the role of women, aristocratic government and a million other elements of our daily lives. But there are similarities, too. Ambition, envy, rage, greed, kindness, selflessness and, above all, love have always been as powerful in motivating choices as they are today. This is a story of people who lived two centuries ago, and yet much of what they desired, much of what they resented and the passions raging in their hearts were only too like the dramas being played out in our own ways, in our own time …
It did not look like a city on the brink of war; still less like the capital of a country that had been torn from one kingdom and annexed by another barely three months before. Brussels in June 1815 could have been en fête, with busy, colourful stalls in the markets and brightly painted, open carriages bowling down the wide thoroughfares, ferrying their cargoes of great ladies and their daughters to pressing social engagements. No one would have guessed that the Emperor Napoleon was on the march and might encamp by the edge of the town at any moment.
None of which was of much interest to Sophia Trenchard as she pushed through the crowds in a determined manner which rather belied her eighteen years. Like any well brought-up young woman, especially in an alien land, she was accompanied by her maid, Jane Croft, who, at twenty-two, was four years older than her mistress. Although if either of them could be said to be protecting the other from a bruising encounter with a fellow pedestrian, it would be Sophia, who looked ready for anything. She was pretty, very pretty even, in that classic blonde, blue-eyed English way, but the cut-glass set of her mouth made it clear that this particular girl would not need Mama’s permission to embark on an adventure. ‘Do hurry, or he’ll have left for luncheon and our journey will have been wasted.’ She was at that period of her life which almost everyone must pass through, when childhood is done with and a faux maturity, untrammelled by experience, gives one a sense that anything is possible until the arrival of real adult- hood proves conclusively that it is not.
‘I’m going as fast as I can, miss,’ murmured Jane, and, as if to prove her words, a hurrying Hussar pushed her backwards without even pausing to learn if she was hurt. ‘It’s like a battle- ground, here.’ Jane was not a beauty, like her young mistress, but she had a spirited face, strong and ruddy, if more suited to country lanes than city streets.
She was quite determined in her way, and her young mistress liked her for it. ‘Don’t be so feeble.’ Sophia had almost reached her destination, turning off the main street into a yard that might once have been a cattle market but which had now been commandeered by the army for what looked like a supply depot. Large carts unloaded cases and sacks and crates which were being carried to surrounding warehouses, and there seemed to be a constant stream of officers from every regiment, conferring and sometimes quarrelling as they moved around in groups. The arrival of a striking young woman and her maid naturally attracted some attention and the conversation, for a moment, was quelled and almost ceased. ‘Please don’t trouble yourselves,’ said Sophia, looking around calmly. ‘I’m here to see my father, Mr Trenchard.’
A young man stepped forward. ‘Do you know the way, Miss Trenchard?’
‘I do. Thank you.’ She walked towards a slightly more important-looking entrance to the main building and, followed by the trembling Jane, she climbed the stairs to the first floor. Here she found more officers apparently waiting to be admitted, but this was a discipline to which Sophia was not prepared to submit. She pushed open the door. ‘You stay here,’ she said. Jane dropped back, rather enjoying the curiosity of the men.
The room Sophia entered was a large one, light and commodious, with a handsome desk in smooth mahogany and other furniture in keeping with the style, but it was the setting for commerce rather than Society, a place of work not play. In one corner, a portly man in his early forties was lecturing a brilliantly uniformed officer. ‘Who the devil is come to interrupt me!’ He spun round, but at the sight of his daughter his mood changed and an endearing smile lit up his angry red face. ‘Well?’ he said. But she looked at the officer. Her father nodded. ‘Captain Cooper, you must excuse me.’
‘That’s all very well, Trenchard –’ ‘Trenchard?’
‘Mr Trenchard. But we...