Mrs Baldwin - Sir Joshua Reynolds
formation broke. He honoured his partner and made to deliver her to the
beau claiming the next dance, when her fingers dropped from his clasp.
Sheridan was strolling along the opposite flank with an extraordinary
female upon his arm. She was dressed in Eastern costume. Turkish,
Persian. Loose silks and jacquards of the richest hues and texture were
wound around her delicate frame, her jewelled moccasins horned like a
jester's and her head crowned with a high turban threaded with red roses
and strands of raven hair.
A hush rippled along the room as Sheridan paraded her slowly towards her host while she smiled with a demure regality. Her face was like unglazed porcelain and her almond eyes were accented by kohl. Hardly anyone knew who she was, except Lord Malmesbury.
“Why, The Fair Greek, by all that's famous!” he said under his breath.
“Who?” hissed the Duke of Beaufort.
“Jane Baldwin, wife of the former British Consul in Alexandria.”
“Certainly don't look English,” said Colonel Hanger. “By Jove, no.”
“The lady's from Smyrna and cherishes a love of Ottoman culture, but her roots are as English as yours and mine. Her sire's a wealthy merchant of the Levant Company, William Maltass.”
“Oh, how Mama would rejoice if she were here!” declared Maria Sefton. The Margravine was noted for her Byzantine adventures.
Mrs Baldwin was presented to her loyal admirer, the Prince of Wales. She bowed before him and was handed to the divan at his side where she sat cross-legged in wistful repose. He explained that she had brought a troupe of Turkish singers and dancers which he was confident his guests would make rousingly welcome. Servants ran to snuff out the wall candles and dim the chandeliers.
In they tripped, to the sound of tabors, waving kerchieves with shouts of jubilation, and fell into formation, a riot of colour and fluttering ribbons. They began with the old folk song, Yine Bir Gülnihal. Then out came the zithers, the baglama, the kemenche, exotic stringed instruments, the woodwind zurna, tulum bagpipes and darbuka drums. The pounding rhythms of the Aegean mingled with the quartertones of the Far East and the incense-ridden melodies of the Kasbah. The sound thrummed and resonated deep within the psyche, the solo violin, moaning, tremulous, scaling the shrillest pitch of ecstasy. The dancers' feet quickened to an interlacing of major and minor keys in overwrought semitones from the southern Mediterranean.
Dursley was transported as he had never been in his life. He seldom gave himself up to anything beyond the sports field, not even the fickle pleasures of romantic chase. How pale was Prinny's tribute to the Orient, in that classical space, compared to the world of Caliphs and Sultans and quinqueremes packed with oil and spice, chypre and wool, the carpet bazaar and the cryptic language of silk kilims, the gilt minarets of the muezzin's call to prayer. Dursley felt he was learning more than a lifetime at Eton could teach.
was drunk on this strange perfusion and it was summed up in the person
on the divan. She seemed amused, but held herself in reserve. When the
final applause died down and the lights were kindled again, he saw that
her eyes were blue and not black as balsam as he had fancied.
“Mrs Baldwin is English you say?” he asked of Maria Sefton.
“So I understand. Do you not think her dazzlingly beautiful?”
“She is tolerably handsome, I suppose,” Dursley shrugged. “Scratch the paint and she'll be as plain as your back-row opera-dancer, I'll wager.”
“That is not a gallant remark, cousin Fitz.”
“I don't think I should like to tangle with her. I dare say she ain't as placid as she looks.”
Maria chuckled prettily. “Well, they do speak of Mrs Baldwin's infirmities of temper.”
“That's no great surprise.”
But her smile, he thought. Her smile is ravishing. It was radiant and whimsical, as if aromatic fumes beckoned a thrilling drowsiness. He imagined her head thrust aside in passion, the locks spreading in dark rivulets upon the pillow, and her throat, now bisected by a velvet choker, beneath his mouth.
“She had on a similar costume for Mr Reynold's painting of her years ago. His Majesty is said to admire her.”
“Along with half the old rakes who wait upon him, I shouldn't wonder. Pray forgive my assault upon your sensibilities, Maria. I forget myself.”
His cousin turned her head away from the crowd and inched a fraction closer. “They say it is a melancholy marriage. She lives apart from the Consul and they are rarely seen together. Of course, he is much older than she. She was only eighteen or nineteen when they were wed.”
“A whirlwind? No courtship?”
“A mercantile deal, some say. Mr Baldwin himself is known for his eccentricities and affects an Arabic way of life.”
“Sounds like a damned loose screw!”
What was fascinating about Mrs Baldwin was that, though she was
cordial, she was remote, and moved in a universe of her own. Dursley
was suddenly consumed by a longing he did not recognise and which had no
affinity with the vapid conquests of the backstage theatre. His
mother's striking beauty was of a pastoral kind beside the Consul's
wife. No one was going to tame her to convention. She'd create her own
rules, a bit like his Aunt of Anspach.
“I'd lay a monkey you wouldn't allow Mrs Baldwin through the door of Almack's,” he joked. Maria and her friend, Lady Sally Jersey, a brace of persnickety divas, were patronesses of those select Assemblies and saw a stringent code of conduct upheld. Lady Berkeley had shied at putting it to the test before the King had relaxed his embargo upon her.
“I think,” said Maria tapping him with her fan, “that you are neglecting Lady Georgiana. “Only reflect upon the benefits of her goodwill, my dear. You'd make a charming pair!”
“The dynasty can go to blazes! Footloose and free, that's my motto.”
His cousin's face clouded. She refrained from observing that it had been pretty much his father's credo, too.
Half an hour later, Mrs Baldwin made to retire. She was to spend one night as a guest of the Prince before moving on to visit relatives in the county. Dursley was at the pinnacle of anguish. She was leaving and she may never have been aware of his existence. The world was dissolving into unreality about him. He could not restrain himself from moving towards the door and exiting without leave from his host who had turned to Lord Yarmouth, Lady Hertford's son. He caught a wave of spicy perfume as the doors came together in front of him. Rashly, he started in pursuit so that the flunkeys again pulled the doors apart. He was out in the Grand Hall with its cooler air and all its gold leaf and chinoiserie. She was mounting the staircase, her embroidered moccasins disappearing above him. And then, joy of joys, he spotted the means of salvation: an almond-shaped black opal framed in seed pearls on the second step. It had been hanging from her velvet choker seconds ago!
“Madam, wait, I beg you, I believe this article is yours!”
Mrs Baldwin turned to see him bounding up the stairs like a young colt. She was smiling upon him placidly.
“I don't think I have had the pleasure of an introduction.”
“Lord Dursley, ma'am,” he said breathlessly, glad that the stairs had given him an excuse.
She was reading his eyes, drinking in his utter vanquishment. “Lord Dursley, you say. Ah, yes.”
He had reached one step below her and took the offered hand, ungloved, not even ringed, and pressed a kiss upon it. It did not match its owner's face; it was slightly drawn and freckled. “No, keep it,” she said, shunning the gem. “I shall entrust it to your care.”
“Keep it? I...I could not possibly!”
“It is for a keepsake. Some day I might wish for its return. How fortunate you have a sharp eye.”
The Brighton Pavilion of 1807