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Fumes Of Fancy

Mrs Baldwin - Sir Joshua Reynolds

from THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Second Book in the Berkeley Series

The 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.

He 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

The Medals of Victory

In honour I gained them, and in honour I will die with them.

Horatio Nelson

In the third week of October, 1805, the western littoral of Spain reverberated to the thunder of cannon. Skeins of smoke were tossed by offshore wind. Every so often the radiant blast of an exploding ship was seen by those searching the horizon from the clifftops. Beneath leaden skies, the sea was full of what looked like blazing matchwood, broken hulls and masts collapsing into the maelstrom amid screams of panic.

As the action lost momentum and resolved into a scene of forlorn wreckage, the wind gave way to an angry gale that continued to lash the Atlantic coast of Spain for a week.

On November 6th, 1805, Admiral Collingwood's account of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of his colleague, Horatio Nelson, by a cannonball in the chest, reached England. The British assault had been a herculean success and had broken the back of the Franco-Spanish Navy for good. Napoleon might be gaining ground in Austria, but his Navy could not hope to rally sufficiently to scale the 'wooden walls' of England.

At Kew, the King shed a tear at Nelson's heroic bravery, along with many others'.

“At least,” he said to Pitt, “he is gone out in a blaze of glory. Eh? No greater sacrifice. This calls for a State funeral, nothing less. Make ready, sir.”

“As Your Majesty proposes,” responded Pitt. “Shall the ceremony be in St Paul's?”

“Wren's monument to almighty God. Ah yes! Anthems to make the rafters ring!”

“Your Majesty's government would concur in that, have no doubt, sir.”

“We've given those Gauls a trouncing at last! What! A cue for rejoicing!”

“It will certainly raise morale against Bonaparte. But we shall not be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, I trust, save Europe by her example.”

It was late afternoon and dark. The room had the sombre glow of a Rubens domestic tableau, lit by a prudent posting of candles. The king was sporting a green shade over his eyes and was looking down at the carpet, as if trying to read sound. His eyesight was lately failing which had the effect of honing his perception.

“Come closer,” he beckoned. “Your voice is not as sure as it was wont.”

“I beg your pardon, sir. Collingwood's despatches arrived in the small hours. It has long been my habit at such times to place my head upon the pillow and sleep again. But in this instance, I could not, and I rose at three. There is so much to weep and rejoice over at once.”

“Indeed. Indeed. But you must take care of your health, Pitt. You have acquired a frailty of tone which speaks of a fatigued constitution.”

Pitt dared to glance at the clock and hoped the King would draw matters to a close. There was much to be done. He must oust his prepared speech and write a new one for the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet at the Guildhall on Saturday night. Sharp, fiery pains tore at his stomach. He needed his palliative white medicine as soon as he could lay his hands upon the bottle.

Excerpted from THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Second Book in the Berkeley Series

Where The Spirit Leads

"Ah, Leicestershire," sighed John Wesley as his mount kicked
over a stony track, "where I always feel such liberty and see but
little fruit!"

He had just taken his leave of the brethren at Markfield, the
foothold of his ministry in the Charnwood Forest, when a flushed
and breathless rider came galloping alongside. At once he
recognised John Coltman, a hosier from Leicester with whom he
had dined on several occasions. Not long ago the poor fellow had
been gravely depressed and had tried all manner of remedies
until the little preacher had laid hands on him and called down
the blessing of the Heavenly Physician.

"Mr Wesley, sir, I heard tell you were abroad in these parts.
Won't you come and speak to the good folk of the town?"

Wesley reached out and put a lightly consoling hand beneath
his companion's elbow. "I don't wilfully neglect them, my friend.
I must go where I'm most needed and the Spirit leads elsewhere.
There's a deal of trouble brewing in the Border Country since
Charles Edward Stuart landed on these shores."

"Ay, he'll do away wi' King George and turn us all into

"He's a long way to go before that, thank God. But we must
not underestimate the strength of Jacobite feeling. Tis an odd
irony that we Methodists, as Dissenters from the Established
Church, are oftentimes mistaken for Catholics. Our sect is
everywhere spoken against."

"Then they suffer much in the North?"

"Praise God, they do!" beamed the wiry clergyman. "There's
nothing to make the gospel thrive so much as persecution. The
best Christians are to be found among the strongholds of the
devil. Go and tell them in the town to pray for a happy outcome
of these affairs and I engage to visit you on my return."

The comrades parted, the hosier to broadcast this heartening
exchange, the man of God to reflect on the phlegmatic nature of
these Midlanders. Many was the time he had passed through the
county and expounded the faith in its villages, but the area did
not beckon strongly enough and the town scarcely at all. They
were peaceable folk, he knew, spinners and weavers whose
grinding toil had brought a fair degree of economic stability to
the region. Sometimes they would rise in the small hours,
walking miles out of their way to hear his message before work
began, but though they listened with interest, they were slow to
respond. Materialism was their god and guide and they thought
nothing of plundering every wagon that entered the town gates to
sell its goods at inflated prices.

If only they could raise their heads above their wheels and
treadles and glimpse eternity.

from A House Not Made With Hands

Overview of book

English Languish

for June Casagrande

My Dad was one of those you cite
Correcting syntax as of right
A 'great big meany' to the core
He put construction to the fore
The spirit of the piece was lost
And in the basket ended tossed
The budding author withered then
And never showed him work again
My heart was shattered by the flaws
A split infinitive could cause
A misplaced preposition, too,
Could wreck a scene of derring-do
I quaked at the subjunctive mood
And clauses giving too much food
For thought midst plots that wouldn't hatch
And parts of speech that did not match

The hanging phrase is widely banned
And sentences that start with And
And sentences that start with But
Will cause an academic Tut!
The strict corrections they propose
Have blighted my immortal prose
O woe is me! I am undone!
There is no licence to have fun!

The muse is gone, I wonder why
My verse can't fit the needle's eye?
And art is left to hang its lyre
On weeping willows and expire
But now I think I've said enough
And must not brook this kind of stuff
My future work they'll not be faulting
I think the pedants are revolting!

A Mystical Ingredient

from A House Not Made With Hands

“Plough a straight furrow, lad," William's father would counsel. "Fix your eye on the far side and never look back."

The cultivation of crops and the tending of beasts ran in George Cooper's blood. Both his own and his wife's families had been farmers for generations so that William could not fail to possess an easy affinity with the land.

William loved the rolling Wreake Valley with its winding watercourses, lush meadows and plains where sheep might safely graze. On his return from Melton Mowbray market, footsore and weary from goading the stock, he would marvel at the curious transparency of the air around Rotherby whose cottages snuggled under the square-towered church like chicks about a mother hen. His mother had been Hannah Fletcher, a Syston maid born and bred, whom her husband had carried off to Rotherby after their wedding on All Fool's Day, 1746. It had long been a joke that George had put his head in the noose on so inauspicious a day! That very month, news had reached them of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in the Scottish Highlands. Bonnie Prince Charlie's hopes of the Crown had been dashed. The Hanoverian redcoats had butchered the Stuart forces and gone far beyond the call of duty in laying waste the Gaelic way of life. Having next to no idea what they were fighting for, half of them, they had sorely punished the brazen-faced clansmen, but the Prince had cunningly slipped through their fingers and gone scuttling back to France. It seemed that Protestant and Catholic had been forever at each other's throats and William, who was given to pondering these matters, was at a loss to fathom why those who proclaimed one Lord could not live in reasonable harmony.

By now, the third George in succession was on the throne. He was German, of course, but unlike his predecessors, spoke English as well as any Charterhouse schoolmaster. He distrusted the nobility for their ambiguous values and preferred to consort with simple mortals. Farming fascinated him. He had a model farm at Kew for the instruction of the young Princes in his overflowing nursery. When he went to take the air at Weymouth, he loved to linger over a breakfast of boiled ham and oatcakes in the kitchen of some local farmhouse while he and the overawed tenant mulled over the problems of good husbandry.

The trouble was that the old ways were changing fast. New techniques were being pioneered to make the growing of the nation's food more efficient. Over in Norfolk, Viscount Coke insisted on the importance of crop rotation. Did he imagine that cottagers could afford to let their strips lie fallow for one year in three? To cap it all, landowners were looking for new means of fattening their pockets. They preferred to see their affairs managed by a dozen large tenants than chase scraps of rent from scores of small ones. This meant that country people were having to turn to labouring and were losing a pride in tending their own patch. Everywhere, land was being enclosed by hawthorn hedges which cost good money to maintain and left little common where you could scratch out a living with a pig or a cow. Fodder had to be begged, bought or stolen.

William was used to hearing his parents discuss these things long into the night over a guttering tallow candle. They had had their share of hardships but had well survived. "Make no mistake, Will, the Lord always provides," his mother would declare, "though not without a vast deal of toiling and spinning from me!"

"How can you be sure?" he had probed as a youngster, though he entertained less doubt of her than of the Almighty.

She was pummelling dough at the time, her freckled brown arms powdered with flour. "Do I take bricks out of the oven when I bake a loaf? See this! Left in the warm for a couple of hours, twill be twice the size and more full of hot air than the vicar!” Hers was a mischievous heresy. While she had the deepest respect for the tenets of the Christian religion, a lively nature occasionally drove her to poke fun at the Church as an ecclesiastical institution.

"Is it magic, then?" asked her son, turning his bright face up to her.

"Little nippers ask too many questions and that's a fact."

"But is it?"

"Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. You might call yeast magic in a manner o' speaking. Tis like faith, like saying your prayers and believing you'll receive what you need."

Now that he had reached the age of twenty, William's contribution to the rent was substantial. He was a broad-shouldered youth of medium height with a mop of yellow hair tied back with twine, a skilful farmer with a propensity for book-learning. Before he was three, he had mastered the alphabet from a hornbook at his mother's knee and a year later was composing whole sentences upon his slate.

"Give over stuffing the boy's head with these clever notions," George Cooper cautioned. “It'll do naught to put bread on the table."

But Hannah thought she knew better. If God had given her son talents, he would not readily see them squandered.

Overview of book

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