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The Fortune Hunter


THE BALL WAS AT ITS HEIGHT. IT WAS AT THE POINT where the women were rosy from the dancing, but before the moment when coiffures began to slip – carefully curled fringes flattening in the heat. The guests, who had been delaying their arrival so that it would appear that they had been dining at one of the more fashionable houses before the ball, had finally dared to make their appearance. The parliamentary lobbies on the Suez bill had closed and the ballroom was spotted with MPs and ministers. It was the last event of the season before people disappeared to the country for the summer, so there was an energy to the occasion as the guests tried to make the most of this last opportunity to squeeze what they wanted from the world: a promotion, a liaison, a husband, a mistress, a loan, or simply a piece of delicious gossip. No one wanted to miss this party; it was the final opportunity to acquire the baubles of hope and intrigue that would make the arid summer months bearable before the fashionable world reassembled in the autumn.

As Bay Middleton made his way up the double staircase, he saw that Earl Spencer, the Red Earl as he was known, was still standing by the door to welcome his guests. The last time Bay had seen Earl Spencer in evening dress had been in Dublin at the Vice Regal lodge. There he had been the Queen’s representative, and with his great height and golden red beard he had looked the part. But now the political wind had changed, the Whigs had been ousted by the Tories under Disraeli, and Spencer looked a little less burnished. His kingdom was on the hunting field, not here under the chandeliers. But he had daughters to bring out and a Party anxious to manoeuvre itself back into power, so there was no help for it. Still, he hovered on the edge of the festivities as if ready to follow more promising sport at any moment.

Spencer caught sight of Bay at the bottom of the stairs and called to him before the footman could announce him.

‘Middleton, my dear fellow. I am uncommon glad to see you here.’ He squeezed Bay’s hand in his great freckled paw.

‘It’s not the same as Dublin, eh?’ Spencer’s pale blue eyes clouded. ‘Still, we have royalty tonight. The Queen of Naples, no less, or should I say the former Queen. Very grand, like all these deposed monarchs, but lively enough.’ He pointed a stubby finger at Bay. ‘I shall rely on you to entertain her. She speaks perfect English but she has a way of sighing that is altogether foreign. I believe the King is not altogether to her taste. No doubt you could bring a smile to those handsome lips.’

Bay smiled. ‘I don’t think a queen would have much time for a mere cavalry captain, My Lord. But I am at your service as always.’

Spencer laughed and put his arm around his shoulders.

‘They were high times in Ireland, eh Middleton? Best hunting in the world. Still, who knows? Disraeli can’t last for ever and then we will be back with a vengeance.’

He propelled Bay into the ballroom where the orchestra was playing a polka.

‘There she is, Queen Maria, the heroine of Gaeta. They say she took command of the garrison and fought against Garibaldi and the Risorgimento while her husband the little king locked himself in his bedroom.’ Spencer pointed to a tall dark woman dressed in white who stood surrounded by a group of men in uniform.

‘It appears that she is still in command of her troops.’ Bay thought that the Queen looked as if she was posing for a portrait, her arms positioned in a perfect oval and her head turned slightly so that everyone could admire her clear profile and the long curve of her neck. She wore a small tiara that sparkled against her dark hair.

‘At least she looks the part,’ said Spencer. ‘Not like the Widow of Windsor. And a horsewoman too. She came out with the Pytchley last year, led the pack all the way. I suppose a day out with the Pytchley is compensation for losing a kingdom, eh?’ But Bay was no longer looking at the Queen in her frame of courtiers. He had seen Blanche’s blond head and he could not help following it as it tacked across the dance floor. Spencer followed his gaze and made a small tutting noise.

‘I believe you are not listening to me, Middleton. Still, I shall leave you to your own pursuits, even if no good can come of them. It’s high time you got married. The right sort of wife would make all the difference.’ The Earl moved off towards the supper room, leaving Bay watching Blanche as she danced around the room. He was dismayed to see how very gracefully she was dancing tonight. She was coming around again and he knew that if she were to turn her head she would see him. He stood there, unable to move, and then just as they were about to come face to face, he saw a flash of white to his left and turned his head. It was Charlotte Baird – still small and dun-coloured but just then a most welcome sight.

He pulled himself around to face her. She was standing beside her aunt and another lady, whom Bay recognised as Augusta Crewe, Fred’s fiancée. Charlotte looked very small standing beside the other women. Middleton bowed to the group and moved next to her.

‘I hope you can hear the music now, Miss Baird.’

She nodded. He thought she looked less sure of herself here in the glittering expanse of the ballroom than she had in the enclosed space of the box at Covent Garden.

‘Yes, but this music is not intended to be listened to.’ She smiled her crooked smile and Bay could see that her fingers were tapping her fan.

He bowed and asked her to dance. But before Charlotte could answer, Augusta said, ‘Oh, but you are too late, Captain Middleton, Miss Baird’s dance card is quite full. Isn’t that right, Charlotte?’ Augusta blinked her sandy eyelashes at Bay.

Charlotte laughed. ‘Oh, but Augusta, I must make room for Captain Middleton. Haven’t you noticed how magnificent Fred is looking tonight? It is all the work of Captain Middleton here who sent him to his tailor. I think I should express our gratitude, don’t you?’

Augusta sniffed. ‘I can’t say that I have noticed anything in particular. Fred is always well turned out.’

‘Oh, you are just being loyal. You may have the next dance, Captain Middleton, and Augusta, perhaps you would make my excuses to Captain Hartopp.’

The band struck up a waltz. Bay held out his hand to Charlotte. He was surprised at how small and how light she was. She barely came up to his shoulder, unlike Blanche, who had always been on a level with him. She was concentrating too hard on the steps to look at him at first. He could see her biting her lip with effort. He tightened his grip on her waist and finally she raised her eyes to his and said, ‘You are a very good dancer.’

‘I have had lots of practice. In Ireland there was nothing to do except hunt and go to parties.’

‘But Captain Hartopp was in Ireland with you, was he not? He doesn’t dance as well as you.’

Bay smiled. ‘It’s true, no one could call Chicken a dancer. He can ride, though.’

‘Why do you call him Chicken, Captain Middleton? I’ve asked Fred but he won’t tell me.’

‘If your brother won’t tell you, then you can hardly expect me to, Miss Baird.’ He saw her frown and continued, ‘Don’t be cross. It is rather a sad little story and I am too fond of Chicken to repeat it.’

‘But you don’t mind taking his dancing partner away?’

Bay looked down at her, surprised. He hadn’t expected Fred’s sister to be so lively.

‘Oh, but that was your decision, not mine. Once you had accepted my invitation I could hardly turn you down.’

‘How chivalrous you are, Captain Middleton.’ She looked up at him through her lashes and Bay decided that her eyes were grey, almost the colour of the blue roan he had ridden in Ireland last summer. She was not beautiful but he found he liked looking at her face.

‘Well, I guessed that you didn’t want to dance with Chicken all night.’

‘Are you a mind reader then, Captain Middleton, as well as being the best dressed officer in the Guards?’

Bay laughed. ‘And on what basis do you call me that? Are you an expert in Guards uniforms, Miss Baird?’

‘Not at all, but my brother is. Fred doesn’t praise people very often, so I am inclined to believe him. I am only sorry you are not wearing your uniform tonight so I can see what perfection looks like.’

‘Oh, I think there are quite enough uniforms here tonight.’ Bay’s voice was dismissive. He felt there was something ostentatious about wearing uniform to every social occasion.

‘Well, I am sure your tails are the epitome of understated good taste, Captain Middleton.’

Bay could not help but glance at his impeccable tail coat with its four jet buttons on the cuff. Charlotte smiled and he checked himself. ‘You are mocking me, but I am not ashamed of taking the trouble to ensure my clothes fit properly.’

‘I envy your attention to detail. Fred is always berating me for my lack of interest in clothes. He would like me to be a fashion plate like Augusta. But I find the rigmarole of dressmaking so tedious. Standing perfectly still while people stick pins into you is not my idea of an occupation.’

‘So what would you rather be doing, Miss Baird?’ She didn’t answer immediately and they did a turn around the dance floor before she said rather hesitantly, ‘I like to take photographs.’

Bay did not conceal his surprise. How could this curious girl be related to stuffy old Fred? ‘Really? What sort of things do you photograph?’

‘Oh, a variety of things, landscapes, portraits, animals, whatever I think will make a good composition.’

‘Have you ever taken a picture of a horse?’

‘Not yet. Did you have one in mind?’

‘I would like very much to have a likeness of Tipsy, my hunter. She is a thing of beauty.’

‘Horse and rider would be interesting. Have you have ever had your photograph taken, Captain Middleton?’


‘Has no one ever asked you for a picture? I am surprised.’

Bay was about to answer when he saw Blanche’s golden head and white face inches away from him. He lost his balance for a second and stepped out wildly, then heard a gasp and a faint tearing noise.

‘Miss Baird, I am so sorry, what have I done?’ Bay looked down and saw that he had put his foot through the flounce of her skirt, leaving a grubby rent in the white silk.

He thought for a moment that Charlotte was going to cry but she shook her head and said, ‘It doesn’t matter, but I think I should get it sewn up.’

They retreated to some seats in the corner and Middleton told a footman to fetch a maid with needle and thread.

‘Unless of course you would rather go somewhere more private like the cloakroom.’

She gave him a sideways look. ‘Oh no, I would much rather stay here and try to figure out why such an excellent dancer should lose his balance.’

He made a little flourish with his hands. ‘You could make anyone unsteady, Miss Baird.’

She did not reply for a moment, considering his remark, and then said, ‘I don’t think that was the reason, Captain Middleton.’

Bay was about to protest when the maid arrived and started to sew up the gash in her dress. Bay stood in front of Charlotte, shielding her from the room. When the girl had finished and the dress was whole again he said, ‘I daresay you won’t dance with me again, but can I take you into supper?’

Charlotte shook her head. ‘I am promised to Captain Hartopp. I can’t abandon him again.’

‘How very irritating. Let me, at least, take you back to Lady Lisle.’

He put out his arm, but she hesitated and then took a flower from the corsage at her wrist. It was a small white rosebud whose tightly furled petals were tinged with pink.

‘You’ve lost your buttonhole, Captain Middleton. Won’t you take this instead?’

He picked up the flower from her outstretched palm and put it into his lapel. It was smaller than the gardenia and there was no scent that he could detect.

‘You are very kind, Miss Baird.’

‘Hardly that. It’s just that I notice things.’

‘Even without a camera?’

She smiled. ‘Once you learn to look at things properly, you never stop.’

‘Now I feel thoroughly nervous of having my likeness taken.’

‘But I only see what is there, Captain Middleton.’

He was about to ask what she saw, but noticed Chicken Hartopp making towards them across the dance floor.

‘There you are, Miss Baird. I have come to rescue you from Middleton. I hope you haven’t forgotten that you promised to let me take you into supper.’

‘Of course not, Captain Hartopp. I was just on my way.’

‘My fault entirely, Chicken. Miss Baird here was furnishing me with a new buttonhole.’

Hartopp looked at the white rosebud on Bay’s lapel and flushed. Bay realised that somehow he had offended him. Charlotte looked embarrassed and put her hand on Hartopp’s arm.

‘I hope you don’t mind. Captain Middleton needed a new buttonhole and there are so many flowers in the beautiful corsage you gave me that I could spare one . . .’

‘Of course I don’t mind,’ said Hartopp, who clearly did. ‘We should get to the supper room before the ices are all gone.’

Bay knew that it was ignoble of him to enjoy Hartopp’s annoyance, but he could not help himself. Hartopp and Fred Baird had never concealed their amazement that despite Middleton’s inferior social position and fortune, he was not only a better rider than either of them but was also much more popular with women.

But satisfying though Chicken’s chagrin had been, Bay took even more pleasure in the fact that little Charlotte Baird had had no qualms about giving him the flower. She liked him, and though Bay was used to being liked by women, he was pleased that this particular girl had decided to favour him. She was not a girl, he guessed, who was easily pleased.

The band started playing a tune that Bay recognised as one that he had danced to with Blanche. They had not danced together very often, as Blanche was careful of her public reputation, so Bay was able to remember each dance quite distinctly. This particular polka had been playing the night of the Londonderry Ball. They had just become lovers and there had been something intoxicating about being able to hold her in his arms in public. She had hardly looked at him, but he had seen the pulse beating in her neck. He found himself looking across the ballroom for her, wondering if she too remembered that other night, but there was no blond head among the swirling dancers. She must be at supper or perhaps she had gone home. Bay was surprised that she could have left without his noticing. He looked at his pocket watch; it was almost midnight. It was much later than he thought. He had been distracted.

There was a cough behind him. He turned to see a man wearing a dress uniform he didn’t recognise.

‘Captain Middleton?’ The man spoke with an accent, French or Italian.

Bay nodded.

‘My name is Count Cagliari. I am equerry to her Majesty, the Queen of Naples.’ Cagliari looked over to where the Queen was sitting. Bay bowed. Cagliari was tall and blond, his chest extensively be-medalled.

‘At your service.’

‘I believe you may know that Her Majesty will be hunting with the Pytchley this winter.’

Bay nodded. ‘I hear that she is an excellent horsewoman.’

‘Yes, that is the case. Her Majesty is quite without fear. But she is a queen and there is a feeling that she should have some assistance. She is after all riding with the public.’

Bay smiled. ‘I don’t think the members of the Pytchley would call themselves the public.’

Cagliari made an apologetic wave of his arm.

‘Forgive me, sir, I am aware that the Pytchley is a very superior gathering. But that is perhaps, as you say here, the point moot. The Queen, as you know, is cruelly parted from the land whose name she bears. She has not the opportunity to lead, to shine, that should be hers by birth and upbringing. So it has become very important to her that she should be distinguished, to make her mark.’ Cagliari paused, looking for the right words, then he continued.

‘The Queen wishes to make her mark on the Pytchley, Captain Middleton. And to that end she needs a guide, someone to help her to take her rightful place.’

‘The hunting field is not a court, Count.’

‘No indeed, how clumsy of me to have given that impression. It is a place of excellence, of course, but as we know, Her Majesty already is a Diana. All she needs is some direction, from someone like yourself, so that she can be the Queen of the hunting field.’

‘Direction? Are you asking me to be her pilot? To open gates and that sort of thing, tell her which way the wind is blowing, help her on her horse if she falls off?’

Cagliari beamed, not picking up on the irony in Bay’s voice.

‘Yes, precisely, Captain Middleton. A pilot. That is the mot juste.’ Bay paused.

The Count did not understand the absurdity of his request.

‘Please tell Her Majesty that, while I am aware of the honour she does me, I am sorry to say that I cannot oblige her.’

‘Oh, but Captain Middleton, you do not appreciate the situation. The Queen would be extremely grateful . . .’ He rolled his eyes as if to convey the extent of her gratitude.

‘Really, your mistress would be better off with someone who enjoys making royalty grateful. Why don’t you ask Captain Hartopp? You see him over there by the orchestra, tall chap with the whiskers? He is an excellent rider, quite as accomplished as I am and he would like nothing better than to ride out with the Queen of Naples.’

Cagliari looked over to where Hartopp was standing with Charlotte and shook his head. ‘I am sure he is an excellent fellow, but Her Majesty has asked for you in particular, Captain Middleton. She has heard so many things about your particular talents.’

‘I am flattered, of course, but I must still refuse. Even if my own Queen were to command my services as a pilot, I would decline. I love to hunt and I have no intention of spoiling one of the great pleasures in life by acting as a glorified royal nursemaid.’

Count Cagliari looked shocked, and Bay felt that perhaps he had gone too far.

‘I have offended you, Count, with my frankness. Forgive me, but you see, I am not one of life’s courtiers.’

The Count bowed. ‘Her Majesty will be disappointed. Poor lady, she has so many crosses to bear.’

Bay patted the Count on the shoulder. ‘Tell her I am rude and uncouth and quite unfit for royal company. I am sure that a man like you can make it seem like a lucky escape.’

The Count smiled wanly. ‘Well, I shall do my best, Captain Middleton.’

Bay watched him thread his way back through the dancers towards the ex-Queen. It was time to leave. As he began to walk down the great staircase he looked up and saw Charlotte Baird, closely followed by Hartopp, coming down from the supper room on the mezzanine. He wondered if she would look down and see him. He stood there for a moment until he saw her spot him. She gave him a tiny smile, and Bay touched the rose in his buttonhole. And then Hartopp took her arm and hurried her back into the ballroom.

The Fortune Hunter
by by Daisy Goodwin

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250043905
  • ISBN-13: 9781250043900