Part 5: Chapters 20 through 26
All things must come to an end, and so it is with Heyer’s tale of Waterloo. After several truly engaging chapters, we come down from the mountaintop and finish out with a series of chapters focusing on the battle itself. Eighty-eight straight pages of blow-by-blow on the battlefield! Ouch. I wouldn’t mind a few highlights, but I’ll be damned if Heyer doesn’t tell us of every last little manoeuvre either side makes. I’ll go light on the details below.
Here we go…
Chapter 20. It’s just a flesh wound
The chapter begins at the Worths’. Charles has returned from the front lines in order to spew some expository dialogue and show off his first war wound, a small scratch on his upper arm. “Trying to rally those damned Dutch-Belgians!” he complains. Sheesh…if only every soldier were a British soldier, eh? After all, a British tar is a soaring soul, as free as a mountain bird! Etc., etc.
After updating his hosts on the martial goings-on, Charles leaves with half of the Worths’ larder. His parting words to his sister-in-law are meant to lead us astray: “Judith, if you should see Miss Devenish…I wish you will tell her that you have seen me tonight, and that all is well.” And then to Bab: “I believe you friend Lavisse to be unhurt. I should have told you before.”
As the Cockney coppers might say, “what’s all this, then?”
Then it’s Lucy’s turn to knock up the Worths. It would appear that she couldn’t give a fig for Charles and is more interested in…
…“ ‘George?’ gasped Judith, grasping a chairback for support…‘He is my husband!’ Lucy said… ‘Last year—in England!’ ”
Well I’ll be. You don’t say. Huh.
Chapter 21. Wherein DocTurtle begins skimming
I think I actually made it to the middle of page 370 (14 pages into the chapter) before I lost it and wrote “Blah blah blah…” in the margin.
At the bottom of that page I’ve written “toledoth,” a Hebrew word meaning “generations”: there are points in the Torah where for verse after verse after verse there’s nothing more than so-and-so begetting so-and-so begetting so-and-so until there’s no telling who is whose fifth cousin three times removed on the mother’s side.
So it is with the paragraph that begins “On this plateau, drawn back en potence to guard the right flank of the line, was Lord Hill’s Second Army Corps” and ends “Colonel Mitchell’s which was formed on the West of the Nivelles road, covering the avenue which led to the great north gate of Hougoumont.”
And it goes on, for another 10 pages after that.
But we couldn’t leave the chapter without the froidest display of sang yet seen, as Charles’s friend Gordon replies to Colonel Audley’s query about the artillery fire: “What do you call this?” “Damned noisy!”
Chapter 22. More
All you need to know about this chapter is that (1) Belgians are really cowardly, (2) Scotsmen are really brave, and (3) lots and lots and lots of people die.
Chapter 23. Yet more
Twenty-four pages more, to be precise. Herein Charles receives his second wound en courant, a shrapnel blast to the thigh.
About the only other event of note as far as our principals is concerned is Harry Alastair’s death. Bab’s younger brother. Damned shame. He was a nice kid, if a bit cocky. “I shall see you later, I daresay,” are his last words to Charles. English to the end!
Chapter 24. Guess what? More!
Yup. If we didn’t already know that the Lowlanders are a covey of craven cow-eyed kids, we’d know it by this chapter’s close. The Dutch flee in terror while the Brits try to rally them. And so forth.
On page 343 Charles receives his coup de grâce as an artillery shell all but takes his arm off.
As he’s forcing himself to his feet once more his arch-rival Lavisse gallops up.
“Parbleu! it is you then?”
“Hallo, Lavisse! Get me a horse, there’s a good fellow!”
“A horse! You need a surgeon, my friend!”
After a quick tit-for-tat, Lavisse agrees to complete Charles’s last mission for him, and the erstwhile enemies bury the hatchet in the bloody soil south of Waterloo.
Wouldn’t life be more interesting if we each had our own personal arch-rival? I think so.
Chapter 25. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Hey, look! Interesting stuff is happening! One could lose an eye with all the loose ends flying around, but somehow they all end up tied together.
Most of Brussels has by now migrated to Antwerp, but the Worths remain.
Judith (known as “Miss Fickle” to her friends) has had a complete change of heart regarding Bab: “You are unjust, Worth! For my part, I am persuaded that she repents bitterly of all that has passed. Oh, if only Charles is spared, I shall be so glad to see him reunited to her!” (I know I haven’t commented on Ms. Heyer’s exclamation marks lately, but boy howdy!)
Meanwhile Lucy’s aunt and uncle show up and let the Worths know that Lucy’s come clean to them.
And Bab’s grandfolks, the Duke and Duchess of Avon, make a grand entrance and a grand scene. Since Lucy’s family’s had to, you know, actually work for their money, they’re not good enough for the Alastairs. Says g-pops to Bab, “what’s this damnable story I hear about that worthless brother of yours?”
The Duchess is a bit more forgiving, reminding her husband that “you made a shocking mésalliance yourself,” hinting at how he’d married beneath his social standing as well.
Meanwhile meanwhile, the royal pair congratulate Bab on extricating herself from Charles, but she’ll have none of it: “Your congratulations are out of place. I never did anything more damnable in my life.”
For the next several pages there’s much coming and going and hemming and hawing and oooo-arrring and harrumphing. At last Worth announces that he’s off to fetch Charles, who’s been very badly wounded.
As it happens, they’ve had to remove his arm (I promise to make no jokes about Bab’s disarming smile). Worth brings him back and they install him upstairs to convalesce.
Chapter 26. England expects, and so do we
Charles is laid up, slowly recovering. “It’s a lucky thing it was only my left,” quips Charles about his missing limb. “It has been a most unfortunate member. I was wounded in it once before.” Such sanguinity!
Several important people call on him while he lies at rest, including that demigod, the Duke of Wellington, himself. “Well! We have given the French a handsome dressing!”
At any rate, two pages from our story’s end, Charles finally slips a ring on Bab’s quivering finger. Not one to let history be one-upped, Heyer makes our Happily Ever After fade into a scene of the Duke scribbling away, blowing the whistle on the brigades that deserted in the line of duty.
I’d give it high marks for exquisite language, lovely prose, and excellent imagery. Heyer writes magnificently well and shows superb mastery of her idiom. Her tone throughout is almost invariably delicate and genteel, yet she manages to bring forth appropriate brutishness where needed, as in some of the bloodier battle scenes. Her dialogue is sharp and witty, but for the most part believable.
I’d give it a mixed grade for characterization: at times Heyer was riding high (Chapter 15 was marvelous), her characters rich and deep; at other times it was as if she couldn’t be bothered, and her characters were little more than one-dimensional ciphers. I’m most disappointed in Lucy and George, whose personages were only scantily sketched throughout the novel.
I’d give it poor marks for pacing and plot: eighty-eight straight pages of gore and guts is a little much, and moreover it took well over a hundred pages before I really began to care about some of the characters.
All in all, maybe a low, inconstant B or B-minus. At its best (which didn’t last long enough) it was delightful and fun to read, and at its worst it was a tiresome slog. That said, if this is one of her worst books, I’d definitely be up for trying out one of her better ones. Of course, I’m sure you’d all rather I tackle something in a different genre for my next set of reviews, so my next Heyer will likely be read off-record.