A Midsummer Night's Dream And A Bloody Nose

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...continued

 

The snub to Dursley's pride did little to dampen his ardour. Lord Berkeley’s blood ran in his veins and there was nothing to equal the thrill of the chase! He went out and bought a pair of unpatriotic Dollond of Paris opera glasses, exquisitely ground and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, so that he might trespass, undetected, into the woodland glades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Amy Knight was a proud Titania who fully deserved to be taken down a peg. But when she bade, with tender solicitude: Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms, he was hers for ever.

“Haul in your glims, Dursley,” hissed Bly. “It’s not your Bottom she’s after!”

The Viscount dropped the glasses, startled from his guilty act of voyeurism. He was beginning to realise the power of perception, that the landscape of the mind was, when all was said and done, the only reality. How liberating after the constraints of his uncertain role in actual life.

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The performance over, they repaired to Belle Vue Villa where the Margravine and her husband, not to be upstaged, threw wide their doors in a bountiful reception. “Wilkommen! Guten appetit!” declared the Margrave whose flimsy English relied heavily upon mime and needed only the garb of a Pierrot to set off his red nose. Here, the atmosphere of Greek antiquity was beguiled by lyres, panflutes and Aeolian harps responding eerily to the swift movement of air. The cast of the production attended in their costumes. Titania’s was all rainbow veils upon a bodice of spangled Florentine silk. Her eyes were Latin-dark and her hair brought to mind poured molasses.

“Rather outré,” sniffed Craven, who understood from Dora Jordan that it was bad form to venture further than the Green Room in character and stage paint.

“Trust Mama to flout the rules.”

It became clear to Dursley that Amy Knight was watching him. What if she had taken a shine to him, not guessing who he was! He would need to disperse the convocation of young bucks hanging upon her every word.

“Fitzhardinge,” said his aunt, refusing to use his title, “allow me to introduce you to some of the players. I believe you share my passion for theatre.”

“The stage is my world, ma’am,” he replied, which was, as yet, more elegant than true.

“So droll! Your father never had such wit, nor such a handsome countenance.”

The Viscount was introduced to Mr John Brunton under whose energetic management the Duke Street theatre had secured Royal patronage. He was a small, slightly bent man, not much to look at, but possessed of boundless goodwill. His command of the stage owed everything to an enlightened eye and the vocal resonance of an Apollo.

“So your lordship wishes to chance his arm at acting? Tis intelligent work, sir, not for idlers. Requires the constitution of an ox and the memory of an elephant. Rogues and vagabonds, we ain’t, sir.”

“I believe my memory is as sound as any man of letters and learning.”

“Coaching. You’ll need coaching. When I’m next down at Bristol, I’ll hear your Romeo.”

“Mightily obliged. I’ve a passable singing voice, too. I once sang for the Prince of Wales.”

Brunton took the liberty of presenting three of his daughters. Miss Knight, he said, had been drilled by the eldest, Elizabeth. The youngest, Louisa, had rapidly acquired a devoted following and benefits had been held for her in Covent Garden. Craven, whose knee-caps were quaking, did not doubt it. Brunton’s good lady gazed upon them in passive adoration from her méridienne sofa, one of nature’s spectators, content to stitch seams and adapt costumes to their wearers.

As the Viscount listened, his mind elsewhere and retaining the thread of conversation with great effort, someone brushed his velvet-clad shoulder. He turned to see Amy passing, her eyes inviting, complicit, while she melted into the throng and circled the room, the Queen of Sprites, an aerial being, out of reach. Something about her... What was it? Something from another time and place...

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The collation featured many olives, lamb-stuffed vine leaves, artichokes, fig pastries, goats’ cheese canapés, aubergine and pearl onion tarts, pear soufflées, honey melons, shrimp salads, retsina and grape punch. His very gaze was glutted with it. Such morsels as were ventured stuck to his palate. His stomach churned with all the anguish of first love. At length, he heard a chaise called for Miss Knight and still no word had been exchanged so that all he could do was stare after the form diminishing down the staircase beneath a billowing cloak. He could no longer conquer the notion that his life would be forever doomed if he did not catch her. Mounting the banister rail, he flew by the seat of his breeches down the staircase to field her at ground floor level.

“Where is your crown?” he demanded. “You were wearing a sparkling diadem in the play.”

A melodic chuckle issued from Amy’s throat, but she seemed genuinely abashed. “You judge it a crime, sir, to cast off one’s crown? It had to be fastened securely and gave me the headache.”

“Then you are acquitted. Let me escort you to your door, I beg, for the infernal racket upstairs is giving me the headache. I swear those instruments are like copulating cats!”

“Sir, please let me pass...”

“Only say I may call upon you tomorrow...” Footmen were opening the doors.

She turned. She did not want to drive her suitor to distraction, or live in fear of awkward scenes at the stage door when Brunton’s bruisers would be around. An actress had fixed times and venues and could not escape a dedicated admirer. “Very well. I think you know my lodgings,” she whispered. “Come at three o’ clock until a quarter past, for I must rest before the next performance.”

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He saw that she had loosened from the role of Titania, a woman of the earth now. The prettily-painted face was less appealing  in the conspiracy of shadows about the vestibule but preserved the sullen beauty of the late ‘Perdita’ Robinson. He kissed her hand in gratitude and let her go. She did know who he was! Since she’d invited him to her house, was she a free woman? He did not relish the idea of tea for three.

Lord Dursley bounded back upstairs to find himself ravenous. His aunt was deep in discussion with Brunton about the design of the proposed new theatre which must be a Greco-Roman temple of the dramatic arts deserving of the highest patronage. The cost of the building was only the beginning. Complex machinery must be installed, soft furnishings, chandeliers and stage sets. Dursley heard Ferryman recommended to assist with this. He had achieved wonders at Brandenburgh House and was always on the lookout for inspiring work.

“I think,” said the Margravine in softened tones, “that he would welcome some relief from his present straits if he is to avoid the debtors' prison.”

“Your Highness is most obliging,” returned Brunton with a bow. The penetrating beam of his eye came to rest upon the young Viscount whom he was mentally casting in Etherege and Molière. “Your family unites nobility with extraordinary talent.”

Back at the Yellow House, the Berkeley residence on the Steine, Dursley got little sleep for the rest of that night. He was sure he had acted too precipitately. He had made a fool of himself. How far were the charms of the evening owing to  stagecraft and litharge of lead? The sober light of morning found him submerged in self-doubt which was often the spur of his overweening self-confidence. Neverthless, at two minutes to  three, he presented himself at North Laine Terrace only to learn from a servant that Miss Knight had gone away. She had not said when she would be back and had mentioned no visitor.

Angrily, the Viscount forsook the premises, resolving to intercept the feckless actress at the theatre. When he got there, she was in her dressing-room and the stage doormen, trained boxers in the school of Tom Cribb, would admit no argument. He booted the door in a paroxysm of rage, only to be hooked beneath his armpits and slung down on the cobbles. Consigning the pair to Hades, he dusted his coat and took himself off. Why? Why was she ignoring him? Was it a trick to inflame his passion? Well, she would not succeed! William Fitzhardinge Berkeley was a dupe for no woman!

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A few days later, when he had recruited his courage and a modicum of sense, he tried again and met with the same inglorious result, only this time, seeing red, he challenged one of the gladiators and came off the worse with a split and swollen mouth and an eye the colour of ripe damsons.

“Fitz!” exclaimed his mother, aghast. “I wish you won’t pick these fights! It’s so ungentlemanlike. Don’t tell me it was a matter of honour, for I shan’t believe you.”

She was too wise to ask him the cause of his injuries and if related to his shaky origins, she did not wish to hear. He allowed her to bathe his face and apply salve, as if he were seven and not seventeen, enjoying the brief ascendancy it gave to have her wait upon him.

“Stop fussing, Mama,” he said tersely when she advised him to seek a piece of steak from the larder. “If it wasn’t for your outmoded ideas, I’d be repelling Bonaparte alongside Freddy.”

“Is that where you’d rather be?”

“It’s where I ought to be.”

“Nonsense! You are the heir. Your destiny is graven upon granite. If it were not, England would perish.”

“Craven has made a career in the army.”

“Your aunt may have attached herself to German royalty, Fitz, but the Cravens do not rank with the Berkeleys in the history of this nation. When your father retires as Colonel-in-Chief of the South Gloucesters, that office will fall to you.”

“There’s plenty of life in the old dog, Mama.”

“Perhaps a little less than there used to be,” she suggested. “He is inclined to become fractious and grows weary sooner than he was used.”

The Countess was about twice her eldest son’s age, but Lord Berkeley was two generations removed and heading for his three-score years. His youth had been played out in the rococo style, with all its fixed assumptions, during the reign of George II and the youthful governance of his grandson, the present King. The echoes of that era were fading fast and his children rallied to the drumroll of a different century.

“Ouch!” The Countess pressed damp cottonwool to her son’s smarting cheekbone as she had done scores of times in his infancy when his pony had thrown him or there had been a tussle in the yard with the miller’s boy.

“Perhaps you should go down to the ice house...”

“I’ll be all right, Mama!” he growled.

“But not nearly so handsome, I fear.”

Though he had no greater champion in the world than his mother, she sometimes irked him beyond endurance. Was what he felt for Amy how it had been for his father whilst his mother stalled all advances and went into hiding, driving him to distraction so that he concocted the plot to kidnap her? She was an innkeeper’s daughter, for pity’s sake! Yet she possessed dignity and deserved to be heard. Hadn’t she been given every cause to believe in that hollow ritual the year before he was born? When he was very small, he and Freddy and Gus, she’d looked after them and played with them, even made clothes for them. There’d been no nanny then, no governess, just one or two maidservants and the Old Nurse, a hazy presence he could only just recall, who was rumoured to have been his widowed grandmother. Lord Berkeley had since told him his grandmother was dead, but his mother had failed to corroborate it and his uncle, William Tudor, with whom they seldom associated nowadays, appeared to know she was in fine fettle and had espoused the keeper of a tavern from Sleaford of the name of Glossop.

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“What happened to your sisters? Don’t you ever hear how they go on?”

It was Lady Berkeley’s turn to flinch. Mention of her sisters flagged up all sorts of alarm. “What makes you ask?”

“I was just thinking about the other side of the family.”

“It’s called the distaff side,” the Countess prompted meaningfully. “The elder married an officer of the Virginia Line who works to see land restored to American citizens and… It’s strange you should think of them...” she broke off. Her voice trailed away in reminiscent key. Only last week she’d received a sad and rather unkind letter from her brother, who kept contact with his transatlantic siblings, to say that Ann had died in the fall of last year. She had not been well since the birth of her daughter, Susan Claiborne. Mary had wept to learn that. Ann was barely forty and a thousand leagues from her native land. It was a brave new world out there, with few frontiers. Everyone’s sight was set on the far horizon. Judge Claiborne had taken a new wife as soon as was half-decent. But Mary did not tell Fitz any of this. There was Ann’s first family in Gloucestershire, now full-grown. Their father, Will Farren, was also dead but Ann had forsaken them all long before that to follow her star.

“What of the other one?”

“My middle sister, Susan? She inherited rice plantations in South Carolina from her first husband where she now lives with her second. Mr Baring is an East India trader.”

“Rich!” said Fitz. “They’ll be drenching rich!”

“My sister does not care for the climate,” said his mother evasively. “Mosquitoes and malaria do not suit the English rose.”

“I bet they’ve scores of negro slaves.”

“About two hundred, I believe. Which is to be regretted.”

“It all depends how they’re treated, Mama.”

“Mr Clarkson and Mr Wilberforce think it intrinsically wicked, as do many other Members of Parliament. Mr Josiah Wedgwood maintains that they are our brothers.”

“It’s not only black people. Many a brat of the London stews is ankle-chained and cruelly beaten by his master.”

“That, too, needs addressing. Black or white, it makes no odds. When a human being is robbed of free will...but there! I shall not wax hot upon the subject. Mrs Baring’s conscience has always been her own!”

Fitz was left with the vague impression that these ethical matters were the source of his mother’s estrangement and why the aunt was seldom spoken of. That Mrs Baring was a heart-breaker, law-breaker, fortune-seeker, marriage-broker extraordinaire, would continue to remain shrouded. He couldn’t see why his father was so slighting of the Coles – except William, of course – when they were blessed with the faculty of scaling the social ladder. It almost beat being born to it. Fitz quite liked the idea of outwitting the bon ton.

As to Miss Knight, he had not given up hope. (If Brunton was as good as his word, then Fitz could find himself playing opposite her at some point.) It had become a question of winning the game, rather than earning her devotion. Bly offered to act as a spy and a go-between. He learned from Madam Brunton that the company was packing its costumes and properties and was leaving that weekend for Colchester. From there, they would be moving on to Norwich and King’s Lynn before returning to open in Covent Garden with a new production.

“The Rivals,” she told him, bustling about with armfuls of whale-boned petticoats. “That’s what Mr Brunton proposes. Miss Knight is the very compendium of Lydia Languish, I don’t mind saying...but it don’t pay like School. You can’t fill the chandeliers with tallow in Town.”

Bly called at Berkeley House with these grave tidings. “Can’t go haring all over the country for a bit o’ muslin,” he reasoned, for he was a pragmatic soul. “What you need is a spot of faro with some of the fellows. Better still, a day at the Races.”

“Colchester? London! I’ll catch the jade there!”

 

continued...

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