Five Season Waltz
Perfect was the only way to describe Willa Harthaven's first season. Her very first dance of her very first ball in London had been with a viscount. Of course she knew he had only asked her at his godmother's request, she being Willa's late mother's best friend. But it had helped ease Willa's entry into London society and gained her a number of other dance partners, including the viscount's younger cousin, Captain David Marshall. With him, Willa had danced her first waltz (practicing with her thirteen year old cousin Agnes did not count). Subsequent balls had been just as successful. Although Willa could hardly call herself one of the most popular debutants of the season, a number of young men found her a pleasant partner; there were few dances she was obliged to sit out.
Captain Marshall was the most handsome of her admirers and the least fickle, standing by her when the other gentlemen that showed her any interest abandoned her as soon as prettier or more eligible young ladies made their appearance. As it was common knowledge that Willa's dowry was fairly modest, she was confident that the captain preferred her company over her "fortune".
The final ball of the season was proving to be just as wonderful as the rest. Willa had just finished the last waltz of the evening with her favorite partner, and now she and the gentleman were enjoying a breath of fresh air on a starlit terrace.
"What a beautiful night," she exclaimed.
"It is, Miss Harthaven, but I know what would make it perfect."
"Do you, Captain?"
"You are an amiable woman, Willa, and the only young lady that I have met with this season that I truly admire. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
Willa was elated. Her first proposal, and from the man she liked best. Her acceptance was on her lips when she heard a distant cough, perhaps from the nearby garden, or from inside through the open terrace doors; where ever it was from, it brought her back to reality, and her grandmother's parting words: "Willa, you are just 18 and barely know your own mind. Promise me you won't accept the first offer of marriage you receive just because it is your first offer. One short Season is not enough time to determine with whom you can best spend the rest of your life. You are young; give yourself plenty of time to find that one gentleman who will make you happy."
Her grandmother had been right, she knew she did not love the captain, although she liked him ever so much; she knew very little about him other than a few weeks of small talk and common ton gossip. She stepped back with a sigh.
"I ... I thank you, sir, but I cannot. You are my first, you see, and it is too soon..."
"Too soon?" Captain Marshall was confused. He had not necessarily been looking for a wife, but he had met with Miss Harthaven frequently and they had gotten on quite well together. Not one to wait when a good thing came his way, he took the same approach in courtship. She seemed perfectly suited to him; marriage seemed the natural next step. He was sure she would agree. "But we meet so often and enjoy each others company, do we not?"
"We do, sir, but I can not accept, I need... " She paused to gather her thoughts. This was not going well.
Her refusal was quite disconcerting. She had said his was her first. Surely Miss Harthaven wasn't the sort to hold out for a better offer? Unfortunately, that was what it appeared.
"You are anticipating another proposal? Perhaps a better one?" he asked suspiciously. The captain knew he was not considered a great "catch" among their circle. Although his cousin was a viscount, he had been obliged to make his own way in the world since the death of his father. He did fairly well with the interest from his investments, not yet enough to give up his army pay, but respectably enough to take on a wife without having to depend on any dowry she might bring with her.
"No, Captain, you misunderstand. It is just my grandmother advised me..."
"Ahhh. Say no more. I have witnessed enough motherly and grandmotherly advice over the years to know where I stand. Forgive me for taking up your time, Miss Harthaven. I shan't impose on you again."
And before she had time to explain, the captain was gone. What had gone wrong? She only meant to tell him she needed more time to make such an important decision and somehow she had ended up offending him. And now she would never have a chance to explain, and most probably would never see the gentleman again. What a horrible way to end the season.
Willa was back in her native Suffolkshire within the week. Her father had not faulted her for not excepting Captain Marshall's offer, he knew his daughter could do better. Her grandmother told her she had been right to refuse; the young man had obviously been too headstrong if he had not given her a chance to speak her mind.
Willa was sorry she had hurt the captain's feelings and wondered if she could have spared them somehow. Not that she regretted her answer; she knew she was not ready to marry, now it was possible that she never would. However, she determined that should she ever be made another offer, she would do her best to explain herself for good or ill before she ever rendered the gentleman an answer.
Although her spirits were not as high in her second season as her first, Willa was more popular than she had been the previous year. The now Major Marshall frequently attended the same social events as the Harthavens, and although his pride kept him from approaching Willa for a dance that year, he noticed that she never seemed to lack for partners. One gentleman in particular, a young Sir Thaddeus Smallwood, seemed particularly taken with her. As far as the major was concerned, the young baronet could have her. Willa took notice of Marshall, too, and though she would have loved to dance with him, she understood why it was now unlikely to happen. A gentleman would hardly want to spend time with a woman who had rejected him.
For his part, Marshall took care to dance with as many young ladies as an evening would allow, while not giving his attentions to any in particular. Of course, he would never admit to himself that none of these ladies suited him as well as one lady had the year before.
One evening late in the season, rather than watching Smallwood claim yet another waltz with Miss Harthaven, the major decided he could use a bit of fresh air. He found a bench in a secluded part of the garden where the music was barely discernable and wondered why it annoyed him so much that the lady was so close to getting what she obviously wanted. So deep in thought was he that he hadn't heard the approach of a couple behind him until it was too late to make his presence known.
"Miss Harthaven ... Willamena ... you have captured my very soul. Say you will be my bride and make me the happiest of men."
Wonderful, thought Marshall, I walked right into what I had hoped to avoid. Go on, Willa, take your prize. This is quite a step up from your last offer.
Willa's thoughts were decidedly different: Not again! Although she felt she knew Sir Thaddeus a bit better than she had known Major Marshall, she did not like him nearly as well, which also meant she did not love him and could not consent to marry him. But how to tell him without repeating the fiasco of last time? She took a deep breath, lowered her eyes, and stated her case.
"We have known each other but a few weeks, my lord, and although I am flattered that you think me worthy of your regard, our acquaintance is too short for me to give you a favorable answer. I thank you, sir, but I cannot marry you. It is too soon; I do not know you well enough to accept your offer."
Too soon? echoed in Marshall's head. She refused him as she refused me! And - good Lord - for the same reason, only I was too arrogant to see.
"You say you cannot marry me now?" asked the baronet, "I may hope, then, in time, you may accept me?"
Though she doubted, Willa answered as diplomatically as she could. "Perhaps, my lord. As my grandmother says, 'Time will tell'."
"Your grandmother sounds like a very wise woman."
"She is sir. She has been more mother than grandmother to me."
"I shall bend to her superior knowledge then, and endeavor to win your approval as well as hers. Shall we return?"
The young fool comprehends much better than I did, thought Marshall. Had I listened then as now, I too could have hoped. So who is the real fool? As the couple wandered back to the ballroom, Marshall went home, dejected.
The baronet visited the Harthavens townhouse a number of times before the end of the season, even stating that he planned to travel through Suffolkshire during the summer and asked Mr. Harthaven if he might call. However, he proved his sincerity, or lack thereof, when a former flame from a neighboring estate, now a widow, returned to her father's home. She and the baronet were married before the summer was out.
The following winter was particularly harsh; Marshall's cousin, the viscount, took ill and died shortly after the New Year. At his uncle's request, Marshall resigned his commission and, as his heir, took up residence at his uncle's estate. The spring Season was half over before he returned to London.
At the first ball he attended, friends and acquaintances were quick to offer their congratulations on Marshall's new position as viscount. It was not just the gentlemen that sought him out, many of the ladies who had not given him a second glance before were now making rather obvious advances towards him. It was all very disturbing. He finally sought refuge in the library, which appeared to be empty.
He had just settled into a comfortable chair when he heard a soft gasp behind him. He turned to see a woman across the room who had seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was Willa Harthaven. Although clearly startled to see him, she gave him a quick curtsy.
"Forgive me, my lord, I did not hear you come in."
"The fault is mine, Miss Harthaven," said Marshall, getting to his feet. "I did not mean to intrude on your privacy."
"It is no intrusion, sir, I was just replacing a book for my father. And my lord..." Willa hesitated, then continued. "Please except my heartfelt condolence on the death of your cousin. I know it was a devastating loss for your family."
"Thank you, it was," replied Marshall. After a moment he added, "You know, Miss Harthaven, you are the first person this evening that has even mentioned my cousin to me."
"I'm so sorry - I did not mean to remind you of your grief."
"No, you misunderstand me. People have been commending me on my elevation and luck at my change in fortune. Only you have had the ... grace ... to acknowledge the tragedy that was its cause."
"I did not know the late viscount well, but we were acquainted. In fact, it was he who first introduced us."
"Yes, I remember. Miss Harthaven, please allow me to apologize for the blunder I made... the last time we spoke. I've come to realize how foolish I must have seemed."
"No sir, I see how you must have been offended; I spoke so badly, I totally mucked up what I wanted to say. "
"And I would not give you leave to say it. Perhaps, we can put it all behind us and start a fresh?"
Willa did not answer, she was not quite sure she had heard him correctly, or even what exactly he had in mind. He held out his hand to her.
"As I am in mourning, I am not dancing this evening, but if you would not mind terribly, Miss Harthaven, would you sit one out with me? We could talk a bit more, perhaps spend the time getting ... reacquainted?"
Smiling, she took his hand. "I would not mind at all, my lord. It would be a pleasure."
They entered the ballroom to the sound of a waltz, barely noticing the other couples on the dance floor as they found a secluded set of seats in an out of the way corner. They spent the rest of the evening speaking of things not normally spoken of at a ball. Before the evening was out, Marshall secured a promise of a dance, the waltz, with Willa at a ball to be held the next month, the soonest he felt it would be acceptable to dance without offending his uncle, or his cousin's memory.
On the anticipated evening, the viscount entered the ballroom, scanning the room for Miss Harthaven or her father. He was somewhat surprised when he was approached by the hostess, Mrs. Wright.
"Good evening, Lord Bridgeford. Mr. and Miss Harthaven asked me to convey their regrets to you. They were both looking forward to seeing you tonight, but were called home to Suffolkshire suddenly this morning. There was an illness in the family, Mrs. Harthaven, Mr. Harthaven's mother."
"Thank you, Mrs. Wright. I hope they find Mrs. Harthaven's health improved on their arrival," he replied. The hostess politely agreed, then turned her attentions back to her other duties.
To say Marshall was disappointed would be an understatement. Until that moment he hadn't realized how much he had been looking forward to seeing Miss Harthaven again. He was left with an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach, and his heart.
The next day Marshall wrote to Willa's father expressing his regret at missing the family's company at the ball, but his hope for Mrs. Harthaven's early recovery. Mr. Harthaven responded within the week, thanking the viscount for his concern and stating that although his mother was not recovered (the doctor suspected a severely weakened heart) she was out of danger for the time being. She required much rest and care, which both of her granddaughters were determined to oversee. The Harthavens would not be returning to town in the foreseeable future. Marshall had the answer to his unasked question.
A few weeks later, when Marshall just happened to be passing through that part of Suffolkshire on business, although that particular route took him some forty miles out of his way, he made a point of stopping in at the Harthaven estate to pay his respects. Unfortunately, the family had removed to the seaside, near where Willa's grandmother had been raised, to brighten the elderly woman's spirits. Mr. Harthaven's steward was loath to give further information as his master had desired private time with his family. As Marshall had been putting off some pressing family business of his own, he had no time to make further inquiries into the Harthavens' whereabouts. He had no choice but to continue on to his uncle's estate; his hope of seeing Willa Harthaven disappointed again.
Willa and her cousin Agnes spent the summer tending their grandmother and it was a time they would always cherish. When the weather was fine, they sat on a terrace overlooking the sea while their grandmother would tell them stories of her youth or that of their fathers', both very active, mischievous boys. When she tired of speaking, the girls and Willa's father took turns reading from Mrs. Harthaven's favorite books. They stayed by the sea until the autumn brought cooler weather, then the family returned home.
At the beginning of the New Year, Mrs. Harthaven passed away peacefully in her sleep. Marshall came to pay his respects and attended the funeral. Before departing, he managed to have a word alone with Willa.
"Thank you for coming, my lord. My family and I appreciate the concern you have shown us throughout my grandmother's illness. My father often mentions how much he has enjoyed corresponding with you these last months."
"I'm glad to hear it," Marshall replied, "Although I wish I could have done more."
"There was nothing more to do. It gives us some comfort to know that my grandmother was content in her last days."
Marshall nodded in acknowledgement. They stood some moments in uncomfortable silence while he sought for appropriate words; none came, but he forged on.
"Fate seems to be conspiring against me, Miss Harthaven. I cannot imagine a more sorrowful time to solicit your attention, but so much time has already passed since... I fear if I do not bring my suit now, I will be prevented from ever bringing it. I have asked before, Willa; I ask again..." He was halted from continuing by Willa's raised hand before him.
"Pray sir, don't. I would not have you pledge yourself now when so much uncertainty is before us. I am bound to be in mourning for many months. You have obligations to your uncle, in London and elsewhere. So much may happen to each of us in that time, another may even take my place in your heart. It has been known to happen."
"I am not Smallwood, Miss Harthaven."
"Agreed, my lord," Willa smiled; she could never confuse him with Sir Thaddeus. "But I cannot allow you to enter into a commitment when we know not what these next months may hold."
"I assure you, despite appearances, your place in my heart has been quite secure these last three years."
Willa's eyes soften for an instant on hearing this, but her resolution did not waver.
"Then perhaps it will remain so for a few months more. Come July, if you still have a question for me, I will hear you out and give you my answer."
"May I hope for a favorable answer?"
"That would depend on if the request is ever made," she responded.
"Have no doubt, it will be; you may depend on it."
"Then you may hope as you will, sir." The look in her eyes as she spoke gave Marshall the first reason to hope in a year.
Marshall now felt that had only the London Season to get through, which he planned to safely sit out on his uncle's estate in Huntingdonshire before returning to Suffolkshire to claim Willa's hand. Unfortunately his uncle had other plans, namely his daughter Gwendolyn's début. Lady Gwendolyn was to be presented at court that season and her father expected his heir to escort her about and give her a good showing. Marshall had no choice but to agree. So to London he went.
Lady Gwendolyn opened the ball in her honor on the arm of her cousin, David Marshall, the viscount of Bridgeford. They made a handsome couple dancing together and it was immediately rumored that they intended to make a match. Despite this, a multitude of potential suitors vied that evening for the lady to favor them with a dance, while the gentleman in question deigned to dance no more. His lack of partners seeming to confirm the rumors. And so the season went, Marshall dancing once per event with Lady Gwendolyn and no one else; that the dance was never a waltz was observed by no one but the viscount himself.
In Suffolkshire, seventeen year old Agnes Harthaven was disappointed to miss what would have been her first season. Willa did her best to keep her cousin's spirits up by dance practice and stories of her own London seasons. As they waltzed about the drawing room, Agnes begged Willa for her favorite tales: the downhearted viscount cheered by the sympathetic maiden, the dashing captain and the young debutant underneath a moonlit sky, and the wronged major who set out to charm all the ladies, save one.
The season ended in Town without the long speculated engagement happening, however Lady Gwendolyn returned to her father's estate with no less than three marriage proposals to think fondly upon. She had refused two politely, the third she did not decline but requested more time of the gentleman; like Willa, Lady Gwendolyn had a concerned relative who gave her some sound advice at the start of the season.
On July 1st, as early in the day as could be considered respectable, the Harthavens received an impatient visitor. Lord Bridgeford requested of Mr. Harthaven and was granted a private word with his daughter Willamena.
It had occurred to Marshall shortly after their last meeting that he was not the only one that would need to come through those months without a change of heart. He was well aware that the rumors involving himself and his cousin could easily have reached Willa's ear, she could understandably doubt his claims of constancy. It was also possible that in the intervening months she may have found another to give her favor.
So it was with some anxiety that Marshall said, "I am ready to ask, Miss Harthaven; are you still willing to hear me?"
Willa nodded, too overcome by emotion to speak. She too had thought this day would never come.
"Willa, I am more sure now than I ever was; I love you. Will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?"
"Yes, my lord," she replied, "nothing would make me happier."
And so it was that Willa opened the first ball of her fifth season dancing with a viscount, her husband. Nearby danced Lady Gwendolyn on the arm of her fiancé, whose proposal she had finally accepted the previous evening; and young Agnes Harthaven, dancing her first waltz of her first season with a handsome Naval commander, one of the viscount's best friends.
Although they had been married over a month ago, Marshall still had his moments of insecurity.
"Tell me, Lady Bridgeford, have you ever regretted refusing my first proposal? So many years wasted?"
"I regret the pain it caused you, but as for my decision, no. I do not regret it, not for a minute."
He was surprised by her candor, but after a moment's reflection he nodded his understanding, "Because you did not know me."
"Partially yes. But mainly, my love, because you did not know me."
Marshall could only agree. He had totally misjudged her four years earlier. He thanked the heavens that he had eventually been given another chance. As the dance ended, the couple made their way out the terrace doors, to stroll through the gardens under the stars.
©2007 Copyright held by the author.