Authors: Robert Neill
Tags: #historical fiction
‘Grant. Captain, Royal Navy. And you, sir?’
‘Hildersham. Army--after a fashion. Glad to be out of it, though.’ His fine deep voice seemed pleasantly amused, and then he turned to the one who mattered. ‘Now, miss, you’ve heard who we are. So who, please, are you?’
‘Does it matter?’ She was intent on the horses and she did not even look at him. ‘Nobody in particular.’
‘I’d say you are.’
‘Oh no, I’m not. I might be, one day, of course.’
Her voice matched the rest of her, crisp and clear and musical, and with exactly the casual note that could pretend indifference and rouse his curiosity. But he had no chance now to show it. Another clatter of hooves broke in, and Sir John de la March came pounding up with Captain Curry at his heels; then the others, Jack Lawson on his sorrel, the Admiral streaked with dust, Sir Michael Murphy, and a dozen more, all pushing and jostling round the curricle, waving their hats, and bringing themselves to notice. Grant pushed closer to one wheel and Hildersham to the other, neither meaning to be dislodged, and a hand in lavender waved to the others in cheerful greeting.
They jingled on, lazily for the horses’ sakes. Out through the gate--clop of hooves and crunch of wheels. Down Park Lane--blue eyes smiling, gentlemen smiling back--and this is a cavalcade. Like a Sovereign’s Escort, says Captain Curry --and who should know better than the Blues? Clop and jingle, down Park Lane--white reins loose in the muslin gloves--gentlemen knee to knee--groom on the rumble, stiff and straight. On and on . . .
It ended in Queen Street, near Berkeley Square, at a modest little house with a cream-painted door, very fresh and clean. The groom jumped down and ran to the horses’ heads, and as he did so the door swung open and a liveried footman appeared, in lavender coat and primrose breeches. He bowed, and without a moment’s pause, before even a man could dismount, the girl leaped from her seat like an agile doe. She was into the house before anyone could speak, and she had still told nobody her name. The door swung to, the latch clicked, and the gentlemen looked blankly at each other.
‘Damme!’ said the Admiral.
‘Begad!’ said Sir Michael Murphy.
‘Don’t be so silly,’ said Hildersham. ‘Ring the bell, somebody.’
Somebody rang it. There was a pause, while horses fretted and gentlemen were amused or annoyed. Then again the door swung slowly open and the footman appeared once more. Or was he a major-domo?
‘My lords--gentlemen . . .’ He was solemn and stilted, like the toastmaster at a banquet. ‘Miss Anstey is not at home today. She will be at home tomorrow. She wishes you good afternoon.’
He bowed, a little stilted bow, and the door swung shut. Again gentlemen looked blankly at each other.
‘Who’s she with tonight?’ asked someone.
‘He’ll be a lucky devil,’ said Captain Curry.
‘He won’t sleep much,’ said Sir Michael Murphy.
Then an upstairs window opened, above the door, and she was leaning out, brown and laughing, while a dozen voices spoke at once, calling jests, inviting her to dinner, asking what her first name was. She waited calmly, but her smile had broadened.
‘Anice.’ She spoke crisply when she could at last be heard. ‘I won’t come to dinner, and I’m nobody in particular. But wait a minute. I’ve something for you.’
She disappeared, and in seconds she appeared again, now with a bowl of roses. She flung them one by one, and laughing gentlemen snatched wildly, gallantly waving hats while horses stamped and reared. She waited again till she could be heard, and then her voice was very clear.
‘That’s all tonight, boys.’ It was a scandalous form of address, and they roared their approval of it. ‘Now I know what you’ll be thinking-----’
‘What?’ called Hildersham.
‘Another of those damned Cyprians. Oh yes, you will’ She paused, while her laughing eyes held all of them. Then she nodded. ‘You’ll be right, too.’
She was the talk of the town, the toast in the clubs. Her name had been carried everywhere, and languid saunterers asked who she was, where she came from, how she had learned to do it. She was discussed in the Park, at the Opera, in Bond Street, and in St. James’s Street. In the clubs they were laying odds on who would have her first, and in the bow window at White’s the lisping dandies spoke of her. Even at Almack’s, which was harder to enter than the Kingdom of Heaven, her name was heard; though here perhaps a little frigidly, since the ladies ruled at Almack’s. In more earthly haunts, in the chophouses and wine lodges, they talked of the ‘Anstey Greys’ and the pursuit of the primrose curricle. She had, in short, arrived, and in that one impudent escapade she had established herself at the top of her profession. Nobody doubted what that profession was; and nobody of consequence seemed to mind it either.
Gentlemen began to call. The Earl of Hildersham called. He was in Queen Street the next morning to send in his card, an armful of roses, and a request for an interview; for Hildersham knew how to do it. He was graciously received, invited to an elegant sitting-room, and given two minutes’ talk. He emerged looking pleased, and later in the week she was seen in his box at the opera and with him in the Park. It was reckoned as a triumph, which other men, since he was popular, laid to his good looks and accomplished manners. Ladies spoke a little differently. They pointed out that he had thirty thousand a year and a name for spending it; and they thought this might have something to do with it also.
The Marquis of Highbridge meant to call. Then, having a care for his dignity, he changed his mind and sent his footman instead. The man carried a note that briefly invited her to supper with his lordship at a fee of fifty guineas, and he came back with an even briefer note. Miss Anstey was not interested in fifty guineas, and did not sup with gentlemen who were not known to her. This, also, was carried by the footman, and as she had not sealed the sheet he was fairly sure to have read it.
Sir Michael Murphy called. He had nothing a year and a name for living beyond it, but she did not seem to notice that. He had a fine rich voice and engaging manners, and he was received accordingly. She gave him cake and sherry, and talk that lasted an hour, and the next day she rode with him in Rotten Row. He was in such a state after it that he staked his last three guineas at a macao table, declaring he was bound to win on a day of such entrancing luck. And win he did. He won twelve hundred guineas at a sitting, and he was at her door next morning with a diamond brooch that had cost perhaps a third of them. Thereafter they were friends, and she would always stop in the Park to speak to him, or let him introduce some eager gentleman. It was rumoured, by the ladies, that he found the privilege profitable, and she no less.
Captain Curry called, and Miss Anstey was captivating. She admired his regimentals, and confessed to a liking for military men (especially the Blues). She allowed herself to be persuaded to a dinner he insisted on giving for his brother officers, where she sat in the centre of the table, the only woman present, and acted as their president for the night. She was reported to have given much surprise, not only by her self-possession but by her knowledge of etiquette. It almost appeared that she knew something of cavalry officers and their ways.
Captain Grant did not call, though he might well have done. He was not sure that he wanted to. Or, rather, he did want to, but he thought he would be silly if he did. He was not sure about anything in these days. He had been too long and too continuously at sea to find his bearings in this strange new world. It was scarcely a week since he had made his landfall off the Lizard and then worked his ship into Portsmouth with her paying-off pennant flying, and his two lives seemed to overlap. There were moments in the night when his bed seemed to sway, and
was lifting her bows again to the long Atlantic swell off Santander. Then he would wake, in an hotel bedroom, and his first glance would be upward, in search of the deck-head compass that would tell him where the ship’s head was. He had been only fourteen when he was entered as a midshipman in the old
--Captain Wharton--and it had been his whole life since. Now, apparently, it was at an end, and he must find a new one somehow. He did not know how. But Miss Anstey stayed in his thoughts, blending oddly with ships and wind, gun-flashes in the night and his memories of war.
He did not ride in the Park again. He had hired the horse that day only to please the Admiral, who had been his first captain and his friend and mentor since. But he walked in the Park, still hoping to see her, still unable to forget her, and he met the Admiral instead, who was also walking. They went off to dine together, enjoying it after their fare at sea; and somehow, before they were half-way through their dinner, he found himself mentioning Miss Anstey. It was as if he could not keep off her, and for a moment the Admiral’s eyes grew sharp, in a remembered style.
‘That way, is it?’ he remarked, and toyed thoughtfully with his wine. ‘Well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. It’s time you cruised that way.’
‘I don’t quite know what she is.’
‘I’d have thought it plain enough. She’s a demi-rep.’
‘She said a Cyprian.’
‘It’s another word for the same thing, and if you don’t know what that means, Grant, it’s a high-grade harlot--the sort that picks and chooses. You’ll probably find her expensive, but I suppose you can afford it? You’ve done pretty well in prize money.’
‘I’ve been lucky.’
‘Very--since there isn’t any more to come.’
‘Not for me, anyway.’
‘Not for anybody, in peacetime. What
they tell you at Admiralty, by the way?’
‘Nothing for me.’ Grant spoke briefly as he sifted sugar over the plum pie. ‘No commands available. Ships being laid in reserve, of course. Too many captains now.’
‘It’s to be expected, after the war.’
‘I know it is. I was ready to wait my turn, but it doesn’t look as if there’s going to
a turn. No further use for my services. Half-pay instead. That’s about it.’
‘Ye-es.’ Again he spoke slowly. ‘I’m afraid, Grant, you’re not the first officer to have that treatment from their lordships--and you won’t be the last, either.’
‘It’s no use crying about it. I’ll have to find something to do.’
‘You could even get married.’
‘I’m not sure I want to. I don’t know anyone.’
‘You soon will.’ The older man’s eyebrows lifted for a moment in amusement. ‘You’re young enough. Twenty-nine, aren’t you? In case you don’t know it, you’re a good-looking fellow, and you’ve--what is it?--thirty thousand pounds in prize money?
meet someone. Depend upon it, you will.’
‘And don’t close with the first that offers, by the way. No boarding through the smoke this time. Keep to windward till you sight the whole convoy. Then pick your target. So stop fretting and sleep at nights.’
‘I’m not doing. I keep waking.’
‘Don’t we all?’ The slow nod was sympathetic now. ‘You’ve had a lot of inshore work, haven’t you?
That had been his first command, which he had had when he was twenty-three. He had done three years in
before she at last came home for refit, and then he had been in
a ship-of-the-line, bound once more for the Mediterranean and the endless watching of Toulon. There were two long years of it, leading to Trafalgar, and then, with his time as midshipman completed, he had passed for lieutenant at the beginning of 1806. At once he was in a frigate again, the
thirty-six, and he had thought himself lucky, for it was the only chance of service. Line-of-battle ships could lie in harbour now, but the frigates’ work was never done. All along the coast, from Calais to Brest, from Brest to Cadiz and Malaga, to Barcelona and Toulon, there were convoys to be harassed, privateers to be taken, ships to be cut from harbours; and with Cochrane in
to show the way, the frigate captains had set about it with a will. Soon, as the blockade was tightened, the frigates were joined by the lighter sloops that could work in shallow water, and they were young men’s commands. Grant had shown his quality in
and in 1809, in the rank of commander, he had sailed in the sixteen-gun
He could not have had a better moment. Spain was in revolt at last against the exactions of Buonaparte. Portugal was holding out, and the British government was in earnest now. Here was the chance to fight the French on land, to fight them where their strained supply-lines had reached the limit, and this time it was to be permanent. There were to be no more battles thrown away, like Vimeiro, no more raids to end in tragedy at Corunna. This time the troops were to stay, and already, as
beat out of Plymouth that windy April morning, the Tagus was full of transports and
was off the Lizard, plunging down Channel in an easterly gale, taking Sir Arthur Wellesley to an army assembling at Lisbon. The Navy was in full support, and the orders to the sloops and frigates were clear enough to captains who had known
The Spanish coast, wherever it was held by the French, was to be kept in turmoil, harbours raided, roads bombarded, marauding parties put ashore by night, arms and powder supplied to guerrillas; anything that would force the French to disperse over thirteen hundred miles of coast the armies that would be overwhelming if they were allowed to concentrate. It was work well suited to the wild young officers who were put into the sloops, but it was harder on the captains. They had to learn not to be wild. To them it meant calculated risks, exact navigation, hair-raising seamanship in wind and dark on a lee shore held by the enemy, and Grant had four long years of it until, in 1813, he was posted captain and given his frigate. But even then it continued, for the frigates’ work was much the same, and it was no matter for surprise that neither he nor Wharton had yet settled to the land, or could sleep unwaking through the night. It would be different, no doubt, for Miss Anstey, and for well-dressed gentlemen who had made their world in Rotten Row; for the Earl of Hildersham, and some others like him.