The Captain and the Coquette.
A Short Story Prequel to
Beauty and the Beast of Thornleigh.
From material which inspired my second novel.
I hope you enjoy the read.
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There are those who complain that London in the summer is an unbearable conglomeration of stifling, cloying heat to rival Africa, clamouring, ceaseless noise reminiscent of a screaming threshing machine working full tilt twenty-four hours a day, and odious stench akin to that of the down-wind from a pig farm.
This was no deterrent, however to the throngs who swarmed into this veritable pig-pit for the yearly ‘season’. The capacity of that great city each summer was stretched ever more, so that it brimmed to bursting with diversion-seeking, pleasure-loving country gentry, ready to be entertained and determined to be so twenty-four hours a day. The mad rush of carriages, people and horses passing among each other at all hours, with barely a whit of distance to separate them, nor opportunity to pass between, gave most of these so-called refined people the head-ache, which affliction they would own quite cheerfully as they rushed forward and onward to the next engagement.
If anyone ever slept, this was kept quite secret, for no one appeared ever to take to their beds, and most sported great dark circles below glazed, reddened eyes as a testimony to the capacity of humans for overindulgence and the importance of being seen over seeing clearly.
For a particular young lady in a blue silk dress, perched on a chair in a ballroom with her friends, however, none of this signified, and neither had the usual effects of an eight-week season in London touched her materially, to an observer at any rate, for Catherine Hailsham was in a state which rendered her impervious to the rigors of a London summer; she was in love.
Captain Asher Brandt, the object of her recently discovered adoration had made his fortune early by excelling in the navy, and now he was on well-earned leave, however brief that might be with Bonaparte threatening war again already. He had come home to be with his brother, a widower whose wife had died in childbirth. Brandt’s handsome countenance, not the least bit reddened from months at sea, matched his handsome fortune, the said fortune only increasing the captain’s personal attractions as far as young ladies were concerned. And if those same young ladies found anything lacking in the saturnine nose and strong intelligent brow, Brandt’s amiable, assured manner and proud carriage set him apart from most other men in the room.
At least, such were the reflections of Catherine, as she sat with her friends, watching him across the room.
‘You are so lucky, Cathy, to be always in company with him because of Charles. Really, it is quite unfair to the other ladies; you have so much more opportunity to engage him than we do!’ Miss Anne Young made this observation with a wistful sigh.
‘Really, Anne, I cannot help that my brother is Captain Brandt’s most intimate friend, as well as being his lieutenant on the “Victorious”. It is only natural that we should meet often.’ A satisfied smile lurked upon her lips as she spoke.
Catherine had been thrown into Captain Brandt’s company more than a dozen times, conversed with him exactly nine times, and danced with him four times, two dances each time. Enough for her to have fallen headlong into that rapturous state young ladies call “love”, and older matrons, having long since given up all claims to that violence of affection which can so discombobulate a young lady’s composure, dismiss as “infatuation”.
Anne was Catherine’s intimate friend, and these two young women, along with Lilly Osbourne, Catherine’s other particular friend, now sat together, looking out over the crowded ballroom, fluttering their fans in the evening heat and gossiping gently. They sat demurely, their mothers watching guard over them, but the girls had still managed to enclose themselves in that private little circle of confiding intimacy which one only sees among the female sex.
Lilly was hesitant for her friend. ‘He is very handsome, I admit Catherine. But, oughtn’t you to be a little careful, as to your heart? Do you sense that he pays you a peculiar attention? Does he make his meaning clear, or imply it? Mama says that Lady Appleby says, that his heart will not easily be won, because of Bonaparte, and all that.’ Although she had noted the Captain’s easy manners with them all, and seemed to accept Catherine’s attentions with good humour, Lilly had perceived nothing extraordinary in his addresses to her friend.
‘Bonaparte? What has he to do with anything? Captain Brandt has been most attentive, and his asking me to dance twice last night, and twice tonight, was a sure sign of his intention! He will certainly offer for me, and Mama agrees. Besides,’ she added confidently, ‘Charles would warn me if he was not serious. He is too much the gentleman to lead a lady on and then retreat.’
‘Well, perhaps you are right, Cathy, but Mama says she heard from Lady Appleby that he might be called away to Portsmouth as early as next week, so if he is to offer, it had better be soon!’ interjected Miss Young. ‘And if you intend to get him, you had better make your mark with him immediately, for I collect you have some competition!’
Catherine, dismayed at both these items of news, followed her friend’s eyes and then made a determined little moue with her lips. The object of her interest now stood in the center of several attractively-gowned ladies, all of whom were positively swooning over him, she thought acerbically.
She stood. Advancing towards the group, she inserted herself into the little gaggle of hens which had collected about their rooster, and with the confidence of a six-week intimacy behind them both, interjected, ‘Are you to stay long in town, Captain? I do hope you will be able to enjoy a long leave, for I am sure you have earned it!’
Captain Brandt smiled enigmatically. ‘I cannot say when we shall be called away. However, I find myself reluctant to leave the amusements and comforts of the city; they are exceedingly agreeable to a soul which has been forced to bear the confines of a small ship for months on end!’
‘Oh, I do agree, Captain!’ she cried eagerly.
‘Although I can hardly imagine what conditions are like on a ship, since Charles will not let me on board, even to look it over! But,’ she rapidly added as one of the young ladies opened her mouth to speak, ‘Charles says the “Victorious” should expect a long leave.’
Captain Brandt acknowledged this with a polite smile but remained silent.
Miss Laing, a fair creature with puppy-dog eyes, fluttered her fan and began to ask breathlessly about living conditions on board, but Catherine was not so easily put off. Pressing her lips in determination she added quickly, ‘Oh, how I do hope for a long leave for my brother; it is vastly unpleasant to have one’s brothers, and one’s dear friends,’ she added coyly, ‘at sea in wartime, for every occasion the door bell rings or the post comes, the woman folk of the house simply die, expecting news of the worst kind!’
Captain Brandt smiled indulgently. ‘I am much obliged, Miss Hailsham, for your dying—how often must it be—five or six times per day at least, on mine and Charles’s behalf! It must be vastly taxing on the undertaker, however!’
‘Oh, you wicked quizz, you tease me!” she cried, fluttering her fan. ‘Miss Laing, do you not agree that Captain Brandt is a vast famous tease?’ Miss Laing had only a giggle from behind her fan to give in reply, and Catherine quickly added, ‘Only think, if it were so! The undertaker would be the richest man in London!’ She sparkled gently at him. ‘You naughty man, you know I mean to exaggerate! But I do hope your leave will be a long one,’ she added earnestly, putting her hand proprietarily on the Captain’s sleeve, then removing it with a little glance up at him through her lashes.
‘If you will excuse me, ladies, I see I am being summoned.’ He avoided her eyes, and bowing low to all of the ladies at his hand, he retreated across the room to his brother, leaving a disappointed set of hens looking after his blue-coated back.
Osmand stood alone in a corner, an almost-empty glass in his hand.
Brandt hesitated, then began in his most cheerful tone.
‘Well, Osmand, what are you about, lurking in the corner like this?’ He slapped the other man gently on his back. ‘You are missing all the diversions a city of fluttering young ladies can bring you. After all, that is why I have brought you here!’
Osmand remained grave and lifted his drink to his lips. Looking out through the window, he laughed mirthlessly. ‘You do not fool me, brother. I collect that none of those ladies, however pretty they might be or how delightful their conversation, will answer what it is we have both come here for.’
‘And what, pray, is that? What cure can a pretty young woman who darts her sparkling eyes, and smiles only for you, not effect, no matter what the illness?’ Brandt smiled at his brother, but there was concern in his eyes. ‘Come, you must rally, Osmand, you must! It has been too long!’
Osmand finished the last of his drink and placed the glass carefully upon the window will. The moonlight glanced off the cut glass design. ‘You have come to be distracted from the horrors of war, and yet, already you have received your orders again. In three days, you will be at sea, and I, I beg you that I will be with you. Get me a commission, Ash.’ He turned pleading eyes on his brother. ‘God help me, but I cannot bear to be at Thornleigh. I must occupy myself!’
Brandt put his hand on his brother’s arm, and sighed heavily. ‘I had not spoken of it earlier, for you know how reluctant I am about this scheme of yours, but I have spoken to Admiral Shephard. It is done. You have your commission. You sail with me, at midnight, three days from now, if that is truly your wish. I only hope I have done the right thing.’
Osmand grasped his brother’s hand very hard. ‘Thank you. I am more obliged than I can ever say, Asher. I shall not let you down.’