Alice watched Lucy approach their group, her dainty shoes slipping on the wet cobblestones, such was the eagerness of the young lady to reach her friends and share in their excitement. Lucy halted by the small group. “Am I late?” she asked breathlessly, fanning her face with a gloved hand. “Have they gone by?”
“No, Lucy, but they will be here shortly,” said one of her companions, cupping a hand to an ear. “Can you not hear the drums beating?”
“I’m so excited my heart beats too loudly in my ears to hear anything else,” said Lucy. “Alice, isn’t this the best day ever?”
“Yes.” Alice smiled. “Such fun to be had in the coming days, liven up this dreary town. But you must calm yourself. Your cheeks are quite pink. Listen. I can hear them. They must be about to turn the corner.”
Alice Aubrey peered down Mill Street. She wasn’t interested in the foot soldiers. They were lesser men, in her opinion, and not of her class. It was the mounted officers that her eyes would watch carefully. She dearly hoped she would capture their attention, maybe even garner a smile and a salute from one.
Lucy teetered on her tiptoes, her fingers clinging on to Alice’s shoulder. “Why are the militia here?”
Alice lowered her voice. “According to Mama, to impress us with parades. But, Papa thinks it is to do with the uprisings in Manchester. I don’t care why, they’re here and brightening up this dull town with their smart uniforms.”
Alice frowned as she witnessed a group of young ladies on the other side of the street adjust their shawls, allowing them to fall off their shoulders to expose their neck line. Adding to their effrontery, and Alice’s dismay, they fetched out white kerchiefs and brandished them. Alice fumbled about in her purse and found her own freshly pressed hankie. She spied other townsfolk who appeared less keen on the visitors, especially the scowling inn and shopkeepers. Alice ignored their sombre faces and peered up the road.
She hadn’t mentioned her plan to her friends. Whether they would approve or not was of no matter to Alice. It was her idea and nothing to do with her friends, her fellow seekers of attention. Once the parade finished and the men dismissed to the billets, Alice would return to the town and treat herself to a little frivolity and adventure. What could possibility go wrong in a small town like Macclesfield on the edge of the Derbyshire Peaks, far from Manchester?
Her excitement grew, bubbling over into her hopping feet and clapping hands. She could easily hear the sound of many feet marching in unison, the shrilling pipes and thumping drums. She shrieked at the sight of the regiment’s vanguard turning the corner in formation. Finally, the militia entered the main street.
“Ouch!” yelped Lucy. “Philippa, you stood on my toe.”
“I’m sorry,” said the smaller sister. “I can’t see.”
The little group of friends jostled Alice. She came close to toppling into the path of the soldiers.
She could see columns of redcoats, their bright scarlet bodies dazzling against the background of brick and pavement. For a moment, she savoured the sight of the marching soldiers. Across their broad, manly chests were the white cross belts with their powder pouches and underneath the belt, the lines of brass buttons. Above, the black shakos with chin straps, cast shadows over faces. Below, there were snug white breeches and buffed boots, splattered with spots of mud.
Clutching her hands to her chest, Alice finally caught a glimpse of the officers.
“Is that the major or captain?” asked Lucy pointing at the tallest horseman.
Alice examined the uniform. “No,” she said firmly. “The colonel.” She could see the golden tassels of his epaulets perched high on his shoulder. The cocker hat lowered over his forehead inconveniently hid his features. As the marching soldiers filed passed, and the officers drew nearer, he loomed closer.
“Look at them!” gasped Philippa. “Are they not handsome? I am sure one just winked at me.”
“I do believe it is the dust in his eyes, sister,” said Lucy sourly.
Alice edged closer to the line of men, as close as she dared without falling into their path. Remembering her kerchief, she gave it a wave, hoping it would draw their attention.
The foot soldiers, one arm swinging rhythmically, the other clutching their muskets to a shoulder, stared obstinately to the front and ignored her. She noticed the junior officers almost swaggered on their horses, a hand to their hats, tipping or nodding in greeting to the gathering.
It was the elegant colonel, straight backed and tall, who held Alice’s attention unwaveringly. For some reason his features seemed familiar to her, even though she could only truly see his mouth and nose. As his burly stallion came closer, the impassive colonel lifted his head up higher. His face didn’t alter in expression throughout his manoeuvring, even when the horse refused to stay in line. His eyes focused on the road ahead, while one hand held the reins, the other arm lay almost limp to one side, straight and unbending, crop clutched in his hand. She adored his gallant posture—a man confident in his role.
Then his eyes moved, down and to the side and he looked straight at her. Not a passing glance of curiosity, but one that remained fixed and unswerving for several seconds. His head turned as his horse came to pass in front of Alice, and she could not believe her eyes when he lifted his arm and touched the tip of the riding crop to the brim of his cocked hat, at the same time letting his head nod vaguely in her direction. Then, the tiny salute complete, he returned to his original posture—rigid and upright in stance, arm to one side.
Alice had frozen to the spot, pulse racing and throat constricted. His face, neither youthful nor aged, remained imprinted on her mind. Why she thought him familiar she didn’t know—she felt sure she would remember such a handsome man. Her friends, seemingly unaware of her brief encounter with the colonel, whooped in delight when one of the lieutenants acknowledged their applause. While Alice remained lost in thought, her friends frantically waved their kerchiefs in her face.
“Did you see, Alice?” shrieked Lucy. “The officer on the bay horse did give me the most charming of smiles. Where do they billet? We must make their acquaintance.”
“I don’t know,” muttered Alice trying to recover her composure. It was a lie. She suspected the officers would be staying at the Dancing Bear Inn; she had overheard the innkeeper complaining about the rising cost of serving visiting regiments. But her plan to visit the inn wouldn’t be ruined by her giggling friends. Alice believed only she had the maturity to deal with such men, and she intended to go on her own.
The militia continued on and disappeared into the marketplace.
“There, done,” remarked Philippa clapping her hands once last time. “Was that not a fine display of soldiery? Did they not look most handsome in their uniforms? What say you, Ann?”
Alice’s quiet friend hadn’t said anything throughout the parade, content to stand at the back, her lanky frame easily giving her a better view. She seemed, to Alice, embarrassed by the fuss.
“It was a good parade,” said Ann, her face turning pink.
The others laughed at her understated response, teasing her as they walked down the streets amongst the dispersing throng.
Lucy chided Ann. “You’ll never make an impression if you don’t show some interest.”
Alice, half-listening, glanced over her shoulder, back up the street to the disappearing lines of soldiers. She could not shake off the sensation that she had been recognised by the regiment’s colonel.