The slanting rays of early morning sun filtered down between the high fronts of closely packed buildings as horse and rider picked their way through the narrow cobbled streets. Its golden light warmed the white stuccoed facades and threw into high relief the delicate baroque curves that distinguished the ornate Viennese architecture from the more stately classical lines found in Paris and London.
But neither horse nor rider had any thoughts to spare for architecture or ornament this morning. In fact, both of them were intent on escaping all the material relics of humanity as they made their way across the bridge over the Danube, and headed toward the liberating expanses of the Prater's meadows and parklands.
When they reached the entrance, the rider urged her mount to a brisker pace, and the animal, eager to gain the enormous park beyond, pricked up its ears and snorted eagerly.
Free of the confines of the city, Helena drew a deep breath, drinking in the tangy scent of autumn and the peaceful vista of trees and grass softened by the early morning haze. Of course, Vienna was small compared to Paris and London. Her mother's French maid was forever sneering at its cramped, twisting streets and unimpressive palaces, comparing it most unfavorably to her native Paris. Helena herself, drawing from dim childhood recollections of London, could agree with her mother when she labeled the Austrian capital provincial and called it hardly worthy of the great international Congress that was now being held in its crowded confines. Still, to someone who had spent the better part of her life roaming the countryside of Hohenbachern with its rolling green hills dotted by rustic villages unchanged since the Middle Ages, Vienna seemed crowded and noisy by comparison, and their rooms, after the light, airy chambers of the Schloss von Hohenbachern, were dark and stuffy.
It was only these morning escapes to the solitude of the Prater, with its wide meadows and broad expanses of grass and trees, that kept Helena from losing her mind entirely. But she had promised her mother, and a promise was a promise even when it meant leaving the freedom and informality of life in Hohenbachern far behind.
When sovereigns, diplomats, and ministers from all over Europe had begun gathering in Vienna to reestablish order after years of war and upheaval, Helena had agreed to accompany her mother to the Austrian capital while her stepfather, the Prince von Hohenbachern, remained with his army on the Saxon border.
Flitting from one ball to another, dancing and flirting until dawn, the Princess von Hohenbachern was in her element, but her daughter, accustomed to the simple rural life at the schloss and the ebullient companionship of her young stepsisters, Sophie and Augusta, was overwhelmed and alienated by the atmosphere of frenzied gaiety, the hordes of foreign visitors crowding the capital, and the streets choked with horses, private equipages, and the three hundred extra coaches provided by the emperor for the comfort and convenience of his guests.
Helena and Nimrod reached the park's central tree-lined alley and, giving in to the pent-up energy that threatened to consume both of them, broke into a gallop. Oblivious to the few other riders who had ventured forth at such an early hour, they thundered to the end of the alley and were wheeling around when Helena's attention was caught by the sight of another horse and rider off to her right. "Whoa, Nimrod." She pulled hard on the reins. "I must have a closer look at this."
Halted in the midst of his liberating gallop, Nimrod snorted and tossed his head in disapproval at the rude interruption, but he obeyed his mistress' command well enough and halted at the edge of the dew-laden pasture.
Not a hundred yards in front of them, a magnificent black horse rose on its hind legs, pawing the air in front of it like the valiant steed of some ancient Teutonic knight, the Teutonic knights that had filled the stories Helena's nurse, Ursula, had told her every night before putting her to bed.
The sight of such a powerful animal balancing delicately on massive haunches was so astounding that it was some minutes before Helena was even aware of the rider on its back, and she held her breath in awe while he remained erect and unmoving as the horse, still on its hind legs, drew in its forelegs and slowly, deliberately pirouetted before dropping gracefully back to the ground.
It was only while the animal rested after its superlative effort and its rider leaned forward to pat his horse's neck that he appeared to be a separate human being rather than an integral part of the animal itself, like one of the centaurs of old. And it was only then that Helena noticed that the rider wore the bright red tunic of a British cavalry officer and not, as she had expected, the more sober uniform of one of the members of the Spanish riding school.
She watched in fascination as, pausing only to catch their breaths, man and horse proceeded through all the movements of the haute ecole, from piaffe to the higher stepping passage, to the leap of the capriole when, airborne for a moment, they were transformed in the observer's imagination from the centaur, Chiron, to the mythical flying horse Pegasus.
Helena had always considered herself to be a more than competent horsewoman. Certainly the cavalry officers who were her stepfather's frequent guests at the schloss had always been loud in their praise of her equestrian abilities, even when she had first arrived in Hohenbachern with her mother at the tender age of ten. But her abilities paled in comparison to this man's.
Slowly, carefully, so as not to distract the horse and rider, and praying that the mist obscured them to some degree, she urged Nimrod forward to get a better look.
The rider's communication with his mount seemed nothing short of supernatural. He barely appeared to use the reins or even his heels, yet the horse responded to what must have been commands of some sort or another, for surely it could not perform such complicated maneuvers without some guidance from its master.
Helena remained rooted to the spot, transfixed by admiration for the horseman's skill until finally Nimrod, deprived of his promised exercise, began to fidget ever so slightly. "Be still, .Nimrod," she admonished him, fearful that any movement on their part would break the concentration of the magnificent pair in front of them and ruin the magic of the moment. Then slowly and carefully she turned her horse around and keeping to the grass at the edge to muffle the sound of his hooves, she walked him slowly back down the alley.
Once out of earshot, however, Helena gave Nimrod his head and they flew back along the alley, kicking up clods of dirt behind them. When they reached the other end and slowed to a trot, it somehow seemed clumsy and awkward after the grace and skill of the other horse and rider. They wheeled and galloped back toward the horse and rider, stopping just out of earshot to turn and begin the gallop back down the alley.
Back and forth they rode until at last Helena saw the horse and rider make their own way toward the alley and, pulling Nimrod into the obscuring shade of the trees, she watched as they trotted slowly back toward the city.
Hidden from view and no longer distracted by the superb mount or the incredible feats of horsemanship, Helena was at last free to observe the rider himself. Almost as magnificent as the animal he rode, he sat erect, yet easily in the saddle. Such naturalness on the part of a man so tall and broad-shouldered could only mean that he had spent the better part of his life on the back of a horse. And what a horse it was, at least sixteen hands high, powerful, broad-chested, and black as night. In fact, from the little Helena could see of the rider's dark hair and aquiline profile as they passed her, it appeared that man and horse were not so very different from one another.
She finished her ride in a thoughtful mood suddenly dissatisfied with her own equestrian abilities. After such a display of horsemanship, every motion of hers seemed crude and clumsy in comparison with the smoothness, strength, and skill of the man who had just left the park.
Inspired by what she had seen, Helena remained in the Prater longer than usual trying her best to emulate the seemingly effortless communication between man and beast that she had just observed until at last, utterly exhausted by the exercise and the concentration it required, she turned back toward the city and the palace on the Braunerstrasse, where she and her mother had been fortunate enough to get an entire floor to themselves. The rooms were elegantly decorated and well proportioned, and though they seemed a trifle cramped and overdecorated after the simple spacious salons of the Schloss von Hohenbachern, Helena knew they were lucky to find anything at all. They had only been able to find suitable quarters through the influence of her stepfather's childhood friend Princess Elizabeth von Furstenberg, whose palace was just around the comer on the Graben.
The heavy wooden doors swung open as they arrived, and Helena handed Nimrod over to the stable boy, who had appeared the moment they entered the cobbled courtyard. Slowly she climbed the curving stone staircase to their quarters. Not for the first time, Helena blessed the Princess von Furstenberg for procuring them rooms on the first floor. Not only did they have larger windows and more light, their occupants faced much less of a climb than their neighbors who were crowded into the small dark rooms on the floors above them. After her strenuous morning, she was doubly glad of this.
Pulling off her hat and gloves, she headed straight for her own bedchamber, eager to shed her tight-fitting habit, but as she passed her mother's door, the princess' maid, Marie, beckoned to her. "Mademoiselle, Madame la Princesse is having her morning chocolate and she is waiting to speak to you."
Helena stifled a sigh of annoyance. "Very good, Marie. I shall go see her." Usually her mother, worn out by the gaiety of a previous evening, did not even rise until noon, which allowed her daughter plenty of time to ride, refresh herself, and dedicate a few uninterrupted hours to reading the London Times, and the Viennese papers.
Helena found her mother draped against piles of pillows, a cup of chocolate in one hand and a looking glass in the other. Tilting her head from side to side, the princess surveyed herself critically in the early morning light.
"No new wrinkles, I hope. Mama." Helena sat down on a blue damask settee at the foot of the ornate gilt bed.
Pushing back her lace-edged nightcap to check for signs of gray at her temples, the princess laid down the glass. "No, thank goodness, but one cannot be too careful, and morning light is the most revealing. It is better to discover one's own flaws first than to have them pointed out by somebody else later. Fortunately for all of us, social events occur in the more forgiving light of late afternoon and evening."
"I doubt that most women have your fortitude, Mama."
The princess shrugged. "It is merely a matter of practicality. Being a beauty is a serious business. One cannot simply leave it all to nature."
"Naturally not." Helena's eyes twinkled as she surveyed the array of vials and bottles on her mother's dressing table. No, the Princess von Hohenbachern left nothing to chance. Her lengthy toilettes were nothing if not thorough. "But tell me. Mama, how was the ball at the Hofburg last evening?" Helena knew her duty. A beauty's existence was sadly diminished if she had no one with whom to share her latest triumphs.
"A sad crush." The princess wrinkled her delicate nose. "In his ardousness to offend no one, the emperor invited anyone and everyone. A person might as well have been consorting with the crowds in the streets, for that matter. There were petty secretaries rubbing elbows with princes of the blood and members of Europe's most ancient families all mixed together with parvenus of the lowest sort."
She shook her head at the folly of it and then brightened. "But I did meet a truly delightful member of the British delegation, a most charming man, and not at all what you would expect from that crowd. He possessed all the sophistication so notably lacking in that silly boy Stewart, and none of the reserve one finds so awkward in Castlereagh. Really, it is such a pity that the British could not find someone more sophisticated than Castlereagh to represent them at the Congress. He is simply no match for the likes of Talleyrand and Metternich--delightful gentlemen both of them. But this Englishman win do well, very well indeed. The Princess Bagration and the Duchess of Sagan think so at any rate; they were both vying for this attention as if he were the only man in the room, and making fools of themselves in the process." The princess could not hide a tiny triumphant smirk as she recalled the scene. "Naturally, he was charming to both of them, but it was clear where his interest lay. He danced both the waltz and the polonaise with me, and he hinted that he would be calling soon. No other woman at the Congress has been distinguished by such marked attention. I shall be the envy of them all."
"No other woman at the Congress has been distinguished by such marked attention? But, Mama, I thought you only met him last evening."
"Met him, yes. Julie Zichy introduced us last evening, but it is certainly not the first time I have laid eyes on him; everyone knows Major Lord Brett Stanford. He is a much sought after gentleman, and indeed, he dances divinely--so graceful, and such a fine figure of a man--but then, cavalry officers always do."
"He is a cavalry officer?" The image of one very skilled and athletic cavalry officer flashed before Helena's eyes. If her mother's cavalry officer were anything like the rider whose equestrian prowess she had witnessed in the Prater an hour ago, small wonder that all of Vienna, or at least its female contingent, was well aware of his presence.
"Yes, and quite a hero as well, if half of the stories one heats are true. He was with Wellington in the Peninsula and then accompanied him to Paris."
"And what is this cavalry officer doing in Vienna besides inciting competition among its already highly competitive female population? I suppose he has something to offer beyond excellent dancing skills and flirtation."
"Really, Helena, you need not sound so scornful. These dancing skills and flirtations, as you call them, can have far-reaching consequences--not that I waste my time dabbling in politics, but others do. A few approving glances or encouraging smiles directed at the right person at the right time can be just as effective, if not more so, than all those everlastingly dull political discussions you attend at the Princess von Furstenberg's. And they are certainly far more amusing. As to what he is doing here, Julie Zichy says that Wellington made him his aide in Paris because he can write French as well as speak it, something that the rest of the British seem unable to do. And now, his skills are needed here. Can you credit it that not one other person among all those people attached to the British delegation can write in the language? Certainly, the man speaks it quite charmingly, and with all the courtesy of a Prince de Ligne or a Talleyrand. One wonders where he learned." The dreamy look that stole into the princess' eyes suggested that the French phrases over which the gentleman had such command were not only well spoken, but highly complimentary.
The princess paused to tilt her head back as Marie gently smoothed the miracle jelly her mistress had recently discovered on the princess' smooth white neck and shoulders. Composed of various herbs, moss, and honey, it was reputed to rejuvenate everything it touched; however, Helena, who watched idly as the maid applied the precious concoction, was not at all sure that the results were worth the extra hour a day this regime demanded. Her mother's skin was as flawless as it had always been, though nothing her daughter could say would ever convince the princess that even someone endowed with natural beauty should not be ever vigilant. "But, Mama, those discussions are at least interesting."
"I said amusing, love, not interesting. I am sure all the discussions at the princess' are very interesting, else you would not be there, but the rest of them are dull dogs indeed--von Schulenberg, Gartner, Gagern, and the others. If you do not have care, my dear, you will become as dull as they are."
"But I already am."
The princess waved away the maid's hand to look at her daughter, an expression of mingled exasperation and resignation in her soft blue eyes. But it was perfectly clear from the twinkle in Helena's own eyes that she did not consider the possibility to be the disaster that her mother did. "You need not give up so easily, love. If you just put your mind to it, you could be quite pretty."
"Really, Mama. Surely you do not believe that I would swallow such a plumper, even from you."
"Well, intriguing, then," the princess temporized. She should have known her daughter would cavil, for she had never been able to get away with telling anything but the absolute truth to Helena. Even at the tender age of four, her unnervingly clear-eyed daughter had been remarkably acute, and she had only grown more so in the intervening years. "You, I am sad to say, had the misfortune to inherit the Devereux features, which are handsome enough, but..."
"But not stunningly beautiful like the Chevenels. I know. Mama. My nose is too long and my..."
"Your nose is just right for your face, which is aquiline and delightfully refined. And if you did not drag your hair back in such an unbecoming knot, but allowed some curls to escape so as to soften the effect and call attention to the fineness of your eyes--but never mind, I can see that you are longing to be off to your musty old library and your boring newspapers. And I must continue with my toilette if I am to continue to hold the interest of the gallant major. I expect he will attend the reception this evening, where, if all goes well, I shall be universally acknowledged as his premier interest."
"I wish you luck. Mama, though I have always thought you far prettier than either the Princess Bagration or the Duchess of Sagan."
"Thank you, my dear. So do I." The princess winked impishly as her daughter rose to leave.