Chapter One ~1798-1

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Chapter One ~1798“How much longer will we have to stay here?” There was a note of impatience in the man’s voice as he stood looking out over the Bay of Naples. It was impossible to imagine that anything could be lovelier than the view from the Palazzo Sessa where the British Ambassador lived. The flat façades of peach and cream-coloured plaster rising from the terraces, the stately walls of the Royal Palace to the left, the Castel dell’Ovo supposed to have been built on a magic egg supplied by the wizard Vergil, all looked as if they were part of a Fairytale. And ahead was the misty blue island of Capri and the exquisite coastline fading away into the distance beneath the smouldering cone of Mount Vesuvius. “They expect a ship any day,” a soft voice replied and Lady Cordelia Stanton moved across the marble-paved terrace to stand beside her brother looking out onto the Bay. She knew that she could never be discontented with the azure sky reflected in the blue-green sea and with the light gilding the crowded shipping in the Harbour and black cypress trees standing like sentinels on the slopes above the town. She had never dreamt, Cordelia thought, that there could be such a profusion of colour as she had found in the gardens of Naples. The purity of the orange blossoms, the mass of roses, syringa and oleander vied with the star-shaped white flowers of the myrtle, the scented rosemary and the purple bougainvillea. She had expected Naples to be beautiful, but not to contain all the elements of magic that she had thought existed only in her imagination. “We have been here for nearly three weeks,” her brother declared in an irritated tone. “It is unlike you to complain, David,” Cordelia said gently, “and Sir William and Lady Hamilton have been so kind.” “I appreciate that, but you know, Cordelia, how much I long to reach Malta. To me every inch of the journey here has been a crusade, and now my Holy Land is within reach.” The throb of emotion in his voice made Cordelia put out her hand and lay it on his arm. “I know what you are feeling, dearest,” she said, “but I cannot help remembering that when you are a Knight of St. John you will leave me behind.” There was a moment's silence, before the young Earl of Hunstanton asked in a very different tone, “Am I being incredibly selfish in not looking after you?” “No, of course not,” Cordelia replied hastily. “We have discussed that many times and we agreed that we both have our own lives to lead. That you should be a Knight has been your ambition ever since you were a tiny child.” “That is true,” the Earl said. “I can remember Mama telling me stories about the Crusades. How valiantly the Crusaders fought against the Saracens, then in all humility the Knights Hospitallers nursed the wounded of both Armies in their hospital in Jerusalem. ” There was a pause before he added, “That is true Christianity, Cordelia, and that is the ideal I have dedicated myself to ever since I can remember.” “Yes, I know, but if I return to England, Malta will seem very far away.” “If – ?” Her brother turned to look at her. “You said ‘if’. Are you considering what I suggested?” “Yes, David, but I don’t wish to speak about it now. We were talking about you and you are waiting for a ship.” He smiled at her and it seemed to illuminate his young face. “I have been waiting for what has seemed to me to be centuries,” he replied, “although actually it is only three years, first to hear if my application to the Grand Master had been accepted, then for Papal approval, and now just for ordinary transportation to carry me to where I can make my vows.” He turned away from his sister as he finished speaking to look once again over the shimmering sea, as if he expected to see a ship coming into Port bearing on its sails the great Eight-Pointed Cross of the Knights of the Order of St. John. However, although there were many ships moving in and out of one of the busiest Ports in the Mediterranean, there was no sign of the one he sought. Cordelia gave a sigh and walked a little way from her brother to touch with gentle fingers the pink camellias that were peeping through the stone balustrade. She resembled a flower herself in her white muslin gown with its soft frilled fichu and her small waist encircled with a blue sash. Despite the warmth of the sunshine she was not wearing a hat and the sunlight glinted on the pale gold hair that framed her small pointed face in fashionable curls. Her eyes were very large and dark-fringed and unexpectedly when they should have been blue they were grey with a touch of purple. They were unusual eyes, which gave her face a piquancy and a mystery that is often lacking in a very young girl’s expression. Ever since she had come to Naples Cordelia had been complimented and fêted by the black-eyed Patricians who lived in elaborate Palaces carved with ornate Cats of arms. They could only be glimpsed through high gilt traceried gates that separated the flower-filled courtyards from the curious populace. Fountains splashed in the marble basins and carved Tritons blew conches beneath the cool and elegant salons whose occupants discussed nothing but conspiracies, treachery and the French warships in Toulon. Cordelia thought sometimes that it had been a mistake to come to Naples when all Europe was in a fever of anxiety and England was now alone and with no allies opposing Napoleon Bonaparte. He was like a monster darkening every land with his shadow. But once her brother knew that his application to become a Knight of St. John had been accepted nothing short of death would have kept him away from his ‘Promised Land’. It seemed strange that as the Earl of Hunstanton with a great estate in Berkshire, with a family home in London and several other properties scattered over the British Isles, he should wish to renounce everything to become a Knight. But, as he had said himself, it had been his goal and ambition ever since a child. Now with both their parents dead, he was his own Master and nothing could have prevented the Earl reaching Malta. It had been an opportunity for Cordelia to experience the fashionable world that she had been excluded from through mourning until the beginning of the year. She found herself enjoying the balls, the theatres, Assemblies and Receptions that she had attended since reaching Naples. She had been afraid of meeting Lady Hamilton, the British Ambassadress who she had heard so many fantastic stories about and whose beauty was a legend. But Emma Hamilton had shown her only kindness and her irresistible vitality had swept aside Cordelia’s shyness from the moment she arrived at the Palazzo Sessa. Nearing forty, Lady Hamilton, whose life story had caused a great deal of whispering and speculation amongst the aristocratic Neapolitans, was still overwhelmingly lovely. Whilst at Cordelia’s age she had been slim, graceful and with an angelic beauty that only the artist George Romney could depict in its perfection, now her figure had lost its fawn-like slimness. But she was still amazingly beautiful and her Grecian attitudes, which had been one of the attractions of the Capital, were just as compelling. “She is fascinating, absolutely fascinating!” Cordelia had said to her brother a dozen times. But she had known that David would not allow his mind to linger on the beauty of any woman when he was about to take the vow of chastity together with those of poverty and obedience. Cordelia was entranced by everything she found in this fantastic world of fashion. There was the Queen of Naples with her smooth pink-and-white Hapsburg complexion, who made up for what she lacked in looks by her stupendous jewels, elaborate gowns, feathers and furs, combined with a Royal air that overawed most people, especially her ineffective rather stupid husband. His Majesty King Ferdinand IV paid Cordelia extravagant compliments, which amused rather than embarrassed her. She realised that he cared nothing for what happened to anyone else as long as he was left undisturbed to enjoy his appetite for food and to indulge in any pleasure that caught his fancy. He was quite unlike any King that Cordelia had ever imagined. He liked to catch fish in the Bay and sell them in the marketplace in Naples, haggling shrewdly over the price with the local fishermen. He especially enjoyed macaroni, which he ate with his fingers. Cordelia had seen him throw a handful of it from his box at the Opera onto the crowd below. But he was afraid of his Queen and in order to escape from her passionate hysterics and her scathing tongue he had handed every Department of State over to her and was not in the least ashamed of it. The person whom Cordelia liked best in Naples was Sir William Hamilton. Growing old he found that the tension of politics and the rumours that swept Naples into a sense of frenzy every other day bored him. Instead he spent his time enjoying the treasures of antiquity that he had accumulated in the Embassy and was utterly absorbed in his Grecian urns and the new discoveries at Pompeii, which were ignored by the majority of the upper class Neapolitans. Sir Willian had been only too pleased to have a new pupil in the shape of Cordelia. It seemed years now since he had instructed the lovely Emma when she had been sent to him as his mistress and whom, because she was the most perfect treasure in all his collection, he had made her his wife. Cordelia exclaimed with delight over his collection of old bronzes and his cabinets of ivories and coins. “Tell me about the Greeks when they came to Naples,” Cordelia would ask. She would bring the light of youth back into the Ambassador’s eyes and a note of excitement into his tired old voice as he told her everything she wanted to hear. Immersed though he was in the past, even Sir William could not ignore the rising tension within Naples and his anxiety had communicated itself to Cordelia so that now she glanced at her brother nervously, wondering if she dare tell him of her fears. “David – ” she began with an urgent note in her voice. Then at that moment they were interrupted. A man came through the open windows of the salon onto the terrace and stood for a moment looking first at Cordelia and then at her brother. David was still staring out to sea and was unaware that anyone had joined them, but Cordelia moved forward politely. She realised that, as Lady Hamilton was at the Palace with the Queen, she must play the part of hostess. She noticed that the new arrival was tall and square-shouldered. He was fashionably, if somewhat carelessly dressed, and she was sure as she approached him that he was English. There was no mistaking his air of superiority. Or was it one of command? He had fair hair above a face burnt so brown by the sun that she might in fact have questioned his English blood had it not been that in contrast his eyes were vividly, dazzlingly blue. He had, she thought, looked a little stern when he first appeared, but as she curtseyed he smiled and it made him look extremely attractive. Yet at the same time she was aware that he had a raffish almost mocking expression that for the moment she could not quite place. Then, as he took her hand in his, she knew what it was. He looked like a buccaneer, a man such as Drake and Hawkins who had dominated the seas in their ships and whose modern counterparts still were harrying the Barbary pirates. “Good afternoon,” Cordelia began. “I am afraid that Lady Hamilton is not at home, but she will be returning shortly.” “I think it is really you I have come to see,” the stranger replied. She had been right. He was English and he had a deep voice that was arresting and was in fact a relief to listen to after the high quick chatter of the Neapolitans.
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