Her Unsuitable Match by Sally Britton
The quiet hung heavily in the night air, thick as a fog. The lack of moonlight meant Myles couldn’t see much farther than the tip of his nose. He heard the shifting of the men around him, their whispered complaints, and someone snored despite the mounting anxiety felt by his fellows.
Myles gripped the butt of his pistol tighter and attempted to force back a rising sense of wrongness. He could practically smell it, like acrid smoke and gunpowder. He’d been ordered to keep his men here. Yet an itching sensation in his heart made him want to move. Did he dare go against orders?
He struggled with instinct, wary of trusting himself when those ranked above him could make his life more a misery than it was at present. Surely his men deserved more from him, though.
He hesitated too long.
From far away, he heard the boom of what he knew, despite his hopes, was not thunder. A cannon had fired. But where? From their side, or the enemy’s? And how? The enemy had to be as blind as Myles and his men.
Everyone woke. Flashes in the distance, coupled with the sound of rifle-rounds shot, brought everyone first to their feet and then their knees as they tried to duck down.
Who was foolish enough to begin a battle in the dead of night? Dawn was still hours away. Myles shouted for order, demanded his men pay attention to him—and then he fell forward, propelled by a force he couldn’t see. He put his hand out to catch himself, and another flash of light revealed why it hurt when his palm made contact with the ground. He crumpled, gasping and uncertain of what he’d seen. He heard a loud ringing in his ear, until sound came roaring back to him.
Confusion reigned as his men shouted and scrambled to fall back, and someone took his arm to help. A pain in his shoulder and the fire in his left arm nearly brought him down. More gunfire, scattered from behind and on all sides, made him stumble. But he kept moving. Kept trying to get to safety and make sense—
An explosion of air knocked him backward, a tree he hadn’t known was there shattered, and the pain was too much—too great. Then there was more screaming…
Myles sat up in bed, drenched in sweat, the screams still echoing in his head. He didn’t shout, though. He kept his lips pressed shut, as he had that night, too. That night so many years ago—he hated to think on it. Never did, if he could help it. And he had thought himself winning at last when it came to repressing the memories of battle.
He covered his face with both hands and took several deep, measured breaths. Then he reached for the curtains surrounding his bed and ripped them open, desperate for sunlight. He was in luck. He hadn’t woken from his nightmare in the dark hours; the faint yellow light of London’s morning sun came whisper-soft through the windows of his small, rented room.
He knew why he’d had the dream.
Myles strode with purpose to the small desk near the window and sat in the chair, not caring that he’d left his robe behind on a hook by the bed. No one was around to see him, half-unclothed, or to remark upon the twists of skin on shoulder and chest where a Frenchman’s round had passed through his body.
He picked up the letter, and its accompanying invitation, from one of his oldest friends. Truthfully, one of the only friends he had left. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted to maintain the relationships that had been his before he went to war—merely that it had become too difficult.
The letter was brief. Written in Joshua Moreton’s usual cheery style. The letter encouraged Myles to accept an invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Gillensford to their ball, as one of their honored guests, held that very evening. Moreton had sent his letter to Myles the week previous. Moreton had promised that Myles would enjoy himself. That the ball would be full of beautiful ladies. He insisted the host and hostess would need men like Myles present if they were to achieve their goal of raising funds for a veteran’s hospital. “A most worthy cause,” his friend had said.
“I am not a cause,” Myles muttered to his friend’s letter, narrowing his good eye at the paper. There wasn’t enough light yet to read the faintly inked words, but Myles knew every bit of it by now.
He also knew what Moreton would say. You aren’t a cause, but you can help with one that benefits men like you.
The truth of that thought, imagined as it was in his friend’s voice, had kept Myles from tossing the invitation into the fire.
How different might things have been for him if there had been some place, and people, dedicated to helping men like him? Men so scarred, physically and mentally, from war that they hardly knew how to exist in a world of peace.
Myles dropped the letter and pushed both hands through his wild hair. He put his elbows on the desk—and it tilted. Again.
Muttering to himself about poor accommodations, Myles lifted the piece of furniture and felt around with one foot until he found the slim volume of sonnets he kept beneath the short leg to even out the plane of the desk. He pushed it back to where it belonged, and the desk settled evenly again.
What right did a man like him have to attend balls? Even charitable ones. He couldn’t even afford a desk with even legs.
He left the invitation and letter both where they were and went about his preparations for the day. He scrubbed himself clean with the pitcher and basin of water in his room, grateful for the cool water that brought him more fully awake. He rubbed at the whiskers on his face and sighed. He needed to find a barber, or risk looking like a madman let loose upon London’s streets.
Myles dressed with military-efficiency, the missing fingers on his left hand not slowing him at all. Then he found his eyepatch on top of the small bureau that held all his worldly possessions. He covered his left eye and completely avoided his reflection in the mirror above that same chest of drawers.
He put a hat on his head—an unfashionable tricorn that had seen better days—and took himself out the door.
London’s streets were already alive with people. He made his way northward to the more fashionable streets and addresses in search of breakfast. Along the way, he dropped pennies into cups and the dirty hands of orphans, never making eye contact with any of them. He had precious little to give, but the thought that the children begging or the women with the hollow cheeks and dark eyes might have lost their breadwinner to battle kept him generous.
And wasn’t that why Moreton wanted him to attend the Gillensfords’ ball?
Halfway through breakfast at a small tea shop on Fenchurch Street, Moreton himself appeared, standing beside Myles’s table. “Knew I’d find you here,” Moreton said in his confoundedly cheerful tones.
Myles squinted up at his friend. “That doesn’t say much for your intellect or powers of deduction, given that I always take my breakfast here.” Then he gestured to the single chair across the small table from his. “Sit. Have something to drink.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Moreton dropped into the chair with little grace. His wide grin nearly brought an answering smile from Myles, but the last threads of his nightmare still had hold of his mind. And he still blamed Moreton for that. At least partially.
“What are you wearing to the ball this evening?” Moreton asked immediately after giving his order to the kitchen boy. “And please tell me you’re going to get a haircut. You look like one of those woodsmen from America. As covered in hair as a bear.”
“Bears are covered in fur.” Not the cleverest response, but Myles didn’t have it in him to match wits with his friend. Not today. “I haven’t decided if I’m going or not.”
“Oh, you’re going. I am hiring a carriage for me, the missus, and you. All three of us will make a delightful party.” Moreton shook a finger at Myles. “You would disappoint Emmeline if you didn’t come, you know. She worries about you.”
Emmeline Moreton, his friend’s wife, was an angel in disguise. Nothing else could explain how easily she welcomed Myles into her life after her wedding, and despite the mess he had been at the time, so newly home from war. She had adopted him, the way one might adopt a growling mongrel from the street, and plied him with cake and kindness until he’d given up his growling. At least around her.
“She worries because you tell her to worry.” Myles took the last bite of his toast, then tried to decide if his sausages were worth finishing. They were slightly burnt. “If she knew how much I loathed the idea of being trotted about as an example of the poor wounded soldier, she wouldn’t want me to go.”
Moreton chuckled. “That isn’t your role in this at all. Believe me, if Gillensford wanted specimens of that sort, I never would have mentioned you to him.”
“How do you know this Gillensford fellow, anyway?” Myles speared one of the sausages and waved it at his friend. “I understand he’s from nobility and money.”
“He is. But his wife is from trade, and she is the one with the money. Or so I hear.” Moreton shrugged. “That’s neither here nor there. I met him November last, when he needed more lawyers to look over the paperwork for the orphanage on Basing Lane. My firm represented their interests, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to dinner a time or two.”
“So Gillensford is a social reformer?” Myles hadn’t heard as much. But then, he ran in vastly different circles than someone with that much wealth and power.
“They both are—Mr. and Mrs. You’d like Mrs. Gillensford, too. Emmeline adores her. Mrs. Gillensford invited Emmeline to join a sewing circle. But again, beside the point.” Moreton’s tea arrived, and he spent the next several seconds blowing across its surface before daring a small sip. “Ahem. Where was I?”
“Social reform.” The response came out sounding more like a grumble than words.
Though his friend’s antics might have amused some, Myles knew well enough that Moreton had a sharp mind. He used his good humor on occasion to make people see things his way.
Moreton narrowed his eyes and put down his tea. “Listen, Cobbett. I know you’re wrapped up in pretending to be a calloused old codger, but I also know you want to help men in your situation to have a better chance at survival once the war is over. Did you even read the newspaper article I sent you three days ago?”
“I did.” He had read it with a sinking heart. The newspaper had reported on yet another soldier returned from war, found lifeless in an alleyway, done in by drink, and all alone. Some of the men under his command, wounded at the same time and from the same cannon fire that had left Myles scarred and half-blind, had met similar fates. Because they had nowhere else to go.
“This hospital the Gillensfords want to build—it isn’t merely to treat wounds. They mean it to be a place for recovery, where soldiers with similar experiences can speak with one another. Where they can prepare to reenter society again. Mrs. Gillensford hopes to partner with different trade guilds to offer work to men who need it. Truly, it sounds like a remarkable endeavor.”
Myles put his half-eaten sausage on the plate and took a drink of his long-cooled tea. The scope of the Gillensfords’ plans amazed him. Could such help for men like him be feasible? Parliament hadn’t managed to do more than approve the payment of pensions. The only government hospital for returning soldiers was overcrowded.
“If I am not invited to the ball in order to garner pity and open pocketbooks, why would I need to be present at all?” He still had no desire to be trotted out as an example—yet he couldn’t be selfish. If even the smallest sacrifice of his comfort played a part of offering hope to boys and men coming back with wounds too deep for most to see…? It was his duty to attend.
For the first time since he sat down, Moreton wore an expression of complete seriousness. There was no coaxing, no false-cheer in his voice when he spoke. “You would be present to answer questions, if anyone is brave enough to ask. To have conversations in which you are honest about what life was like for you when you returned to England. You are an eloquent man, when you wish to be, and none can doubt your sincerity given how openly you wear your scars.”
Myles lowered his gaze to the table, a lump forming in his throat. If only Moreton knew how difficult it was, every single day, for Myles to step out into the sunshine and bear the stares of others. But he had mastered himself, and his emotions, to a point where few could even guess at what strength it took for him to put on his eyepatch and coat as though both were perfectly normal to wear.
“I had better find a barber.”
Moreton blinked at him. “Pardon me?”
Myles gestured with his fully-intact hand to his face. “I wouldn’t want to scare away any of the ladies by looking like a bear.”
When Moreton rose to clap Myles on the back, he forced a smile. In a few hours, he’d be dressed in his finest clothing, moving about in a room filled with the wealthiest members of Society, and revealing much more than he wished about his past difficulties.
He hoped it would be worth it.