Daphne pressed her nose to the window as the carriage pulled up in front of the entrance to Mr. Fitcher’s house. She couldn’t see much yet, beyond a moonlit patch of grass and the shingled roof of an old stone chapel. Doing her best to keep her breath steady, she sat forward again, her back erect, hands folded on her lap the way her mother taught her a proper lady should sit, and waited for the footman to open the door for her.
At the sound of a gentle click, the door swung open. A cool breeze blew in. She took the hand that was offered to her, and froze. He was much younger than she had been expecting. And so handsome! This was the sort of man she thought existed only in dreams. His features were soft and beautiful, but it wasn’t just that. An inner kindness shone through that she struggled to describe. She wanted to remember each moment tonight, in detail, to hold onto for the rest of her life. His greyish eyes locked on hers and she felt herself diving into them like a hidden oasis. A whinnying horse broke the spell and Gunther helped her down out of the cab.
She flashed a smile, one that faded at the sight of his uniform. Although she’d never attended a ball before, she knew hired help were forbidden from mixing with guests. Chances were, once she was led indoors, she’d never see him again. Fighting back disappointment, she said, “You are not Mr. Fitcher.”
“No, miss,” he said sadly. He pointed towards the house where two men were standing. She leaned around him to look. One was obviously the Butler, since even in the darkness she could see the white gloves on his folded hands, so no doubt the footman was referring to the shorter man by his side. With the light from a chandelier shimmering behind them, all she could see of them were their silhouettes.
“There is Mr. Fitcher.”
“Oh.” If only they could climb back inside the cab and run off together. Or she could take her home with him; mother wouldn’t mind, surely.
Gunther smiled kindly to her, but that glimmer in his eye was gone. He gestured for her to continue up the path towards the house. With a heavy heart she watched Mr. Fitcher descend the front steps to greet her. A second footmen held up lantern and now she could make out Mr. Fitcher’s face under the flickering light.
Her heart sank even further. The man was old enough to be her father. She balked at taking another step forward. Mr. Fitz Fitcher held out a hand to her, beckoning her gently as if she were a horse that easily shies. Already their motions seemed part of some awkward courtly dance.
She was aware of her breath hitching in her chest at the touch of his fingers on hers. The same sense of enchantment settled in once more. His wide-set eyes took her in. They were green, the colour of moss, with a hint of brown. His cheekbones were angular and he had a sharp, perfectly straight nose. His generous mouth turned quickly into a smile. Her heart began fluttering again, but less frantically this time, more the flutter of a bird coming down to land on its perch. He was indeed a very handsome man. She forgot all about the lad who’d helped her out of the carriage.
Mr. Fitcher led her into a foyer with a chequered floor so polished she caught her reflection in a black square and then in white. She looked up and stared agape at the chandelier glittering high above her. Although she’d seen this entire place from above in her mother’s scrying tray, she was stunned by the sheer scale, the massive staircase sweeping up to a lengthy minstrel’s gallery, the wide hall flanked with archways leading into similarly massive rooms. She stood motionless, watching the sparkling guests swirl around her. So many people, all dressed in their colourful finery. The gentlemen in tails and the ladies in gowns of blue and purple and yellow and green, with their hair swept up high and pinned in curls and braids under ribbons or tiaras like so many exotic birds.
A tapping on her shoulder woke her from her reverie. She glanced around and Mr. Fitcher had vanished. She began to feel panicked. “Where did he go?”
“He had to attend to some newly arrived guests,” the Butler said. He’d been the one who’d touched her shoulder and she could still feel where his finger had pressed on her flesh. “Come, I’ll take you to him now.”
He offered his arm to escort her into the ballroom. They strolled into the largest room she’d ever been in in her life. Although crowded with revellers, she had no trouble seeing the chamber orchestra onstage at the far end of the room. They played a lovely chaconne and assorted guests danced expertly before them. Across from her, against the wall, she could see a feast laid out for a king. She found herself unable to move from the arched entrance, feeling like a small child on her first day at school. Her eyes widened when she saw the cornucopia of desserts and flowers on the table to her right.
“Come, miss,” the Butler said. He took her closer to the dancing area, where Mr. Fitcher and a clique of beautiful women were all laughing at something he’d just said. One by one the expressions on the women’s faces turned to stone as they spotted the much younger rival for their host’s affections approach.
“Daphne, may I formally introduce you to Mr. Fitze Fitcher,” the Butler said with a bow.
Fitcher’s attention instantly fixated on Daphne. She gasped; not so much at him but at the predatory eyes of the women surrounding him. He bowed, straightened again, and kissed the back of her hand. Oh, she’d never had such attentions as these before. She began feeling quite dizzy from the rush of excitement coursing into her.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance,” he said, clasping her hand. His fingers were warm, his grip firm but not hard. “I have only seen you once previously, from afar. But close enough to wonder if you were not some angel lost and wandering upon this Earth.”
Daphne blushed. The man before her was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen in her life. This flattery was almost too much, but she’d have been lying if she said she didn’t revel in it. He put his arm around the small of her back. He led her away, sheltering her from the other women’s icy stares. He brought her to a regal trio who were around the same age as he and bowed to each of them. “Allow me to introduce you to Count Tepes, Baroness Erzsebet, and my dearest friend Prince Cesare.”
Count Tepes, an Hungarian, had a thick black mustache. His long oiled hair was parted in the middle and curled at the ends. Prince Cesare was a short, stout Italian who was nearly as dark as the Count. Baroness Erzsebet, also Hungarian, was an elegant older woman whose face was only beginning to hint at her age, which was otherwise revealed only by fine streaks of grey in her walnut-dark hair.
The Italian Prince took Daphne’s hand and kissed the back of her fingers. “You are indeed as lovely as I have heard. Fitcher is a most delightful man.”
“Why he remains a bachelor is a mystery for the ages.” The husky-voiced Baroness looked at Fitcher with almost filial affection. Daphne wondered briefly if they were related to one another.
The Count said, “There simply hasn’t been a girl worthy enough who is still—”
“Don’t frighten the poor dear,” the Baroness said. She cocked her head and smiled sweetly at Daphne, though her gaze had a knife edge to it. “The girl has some very distinct traces of good breeding. See her fine jaw, and the bridge of her nose.”
Daphne instinctively drew back from her. Fitcher put his arm around Daphne’s waist and smiled tenderly at her; when her eyes met his it was as though the rest of the room disappeared. Enchanting only began to describe his gaze. “Perhaps I was waiting to meet Daphne all this time. The most beautiful girl I have ever laid eyes upon.”
Intruding into their sphere, the Baroness touched Daphne under her chin, lifting her head up slightly. “What perfect skin. A lovely colour. You’re quite dark for this part of the world.”
Daphne squirmed. She had the unpleasant sensation similar to being watched by a python readying to coil around her and squeeze the life out of her. Only the touch of Fitcher beside her helped her stay calm.
“Come, I had some lemon cakes made especially for you. Your mother informed me those are your favourite.” Fitcher took her hand and led her towards a table laden with an extravagant spread of desserts. Pastries, cakes, tarts, and biscuits decorated with icing and berries and fondant were as flamboyant as the surrounding flower arrangements. Scents of vanilla and chocolate, strawberries and lemon filled her nostrils.
Daphne sampled a small comestible that was mostly cream, taking care none of it wound up on her face. Fitcher began feeding her grapes sweeter than any nectar she’d ever tried, smiling and gently teasing her with each one. Her appetite was slight, however, and they lingered only a short while at the table.
The crowd parted as Fitcher ushered her to the dancing area in front of the stage. He was light on his feet as the two of them waltzed before the cellos and violins. At the end of a minuet, Fitcher pulled her close to him. He gazed into her eyes with the steadiness of a hypnotist. The rest of the room dissolved until only the two of them were left in the world.
Next thing she knew, she was standing with him on an upstairs balcony overlooking the front garden and the lane beyond. Blood red roses twisted around the trellis. A full moon cast a silvery light around, imbuing their setting with a magic even Daphne had never before experienced. An owl hooted gently in the forest. The tree branches whispered a lullaby in the gentle breeze.
Below, Wilhelm mounted a horse whose flank glistened under the moonlight. He nudged his heels into the horse’s sides and rode down the lane into the dark woods. She wasn’t sure why she’d noticed him beyond him being the only moving object in her sights. The jingling bridle, the music, and voices coming out of the windows of the dance hall below, were barely a susurration in her ears.
Fitcher took her in a warm embrace and again she could feel herself pulled into him. They kissed, a slow, electric kiss. An immeasurable time later, he grasped her hands in his. “Come stay with me,” he pleased. “My treasure. You will be happy living here, and shall have everything your heart desires.”
All she could do was smile at him; staying forever in this moment was all she wished for.