Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 2)

Andrew was wakened by his bedroom door opening. Sudden fear gripped him as dim light spread across the room from the door.


Andrew sat up and saw a shadow standing in the doorway, silhouetted by hallway lights. “Charlotte?” he asked. “Is that you?”

“Good, you’re awake,” Charlotte said.

“What time is it?” Andrew asked. “What are–”

Charlotte threw a bag at Andrew, and it landed on his lap with a thud. “Those should fit you. We got your measurements from Cleveland, but if they don’t, please tell me. Get dressed and meet me in the Drawing Room. Immediately.”

“What is–”

Charlotte turned on the bedroom’s electric lights before turning to leave, closing the door behind her. Andrew starred at the door for a few moments. What was going on? He looked at the towering floor clock that ticked in a far corner of the room. Just half past five in the morning. He’d been in bed for less than five hours, what could Charlotte want?

I suppose the bag holds all the answers, Andrew told himself. He got out of the bed and unzipped the bag to take out its components: coverall waders, turtleneck sweater, waistcoat and country jacket, all made from tweed or other waterproof fabrics. There was a small note attached to the turtleneck saying that it went under the waders. He dressed as quickly as he could in the unfamiliar clothing–they weren’t uncomfortable since they had been tailored for him. With that done, he left the bedchambers went to the Drawing Room.

The Princess of Wales was waiting for him, dressed similarly to him–though her clothes tended towards darker shades of brown than his own tans and greens. There was another man in the room, an older one with a shapeless flat cap over thinning hair, and knee-high rubber boots over mustard trousers. The vest he wore was oversized and puffy, and worn with a knit sweater.

“Good morning, Andrew,” Charlotte said, without smiling.

“Your Highness,” the man said, bowing his head. His chubby cheeks were bright and ruddy, and his voice was deep and booming. “A pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Andrew, meet Sir Galbraith Lowry, my father’s Master of the Kennels,” Charlotte said.

“Former Master of the Kennels,” Sir Galbraith Lowry said. “Now I just raise dogs in my spare time.”

“And some of the best dogs I’ve ever worked with.”

It had taken Andrew almost a full minute to realise there were three dogs sitting by the fireplace. They were Hudson Bay Retrievers, dogs taller than Andrew’s knees, with thick black coats and brown points and markings. All three got to their feet and wandered over to Andrew, and he pet them in turn. “Pepin, Maggie and Kipper,” Lowry said, naming the dogs in turn. “The best fowl hunting dogs I’ve ever trained.”

“Hunting,” Andrew said. There were two bags leaning against one of the armchairs.

“They’ll be in your care, then, ma’am,” Lowry said. He tipped his cap to Andrew. “Happy hunting, you two. With your leave.”

“I appreciate all that you’ve done for me, Sir Galbraith,” Charlotte said. “We’ll take good care of them.” When Lowry was gone, Charlotte went over to the bags, unzipped them and took out two shotgun and matching boxes of shells. She handed one of each to Andrew, who just starred at them. “From your reaction, you’ve never been hunting, have you?”

“I’ve never so much as fired a gun before,” Andrew said.

Charlotte froze for a moment. “Really? That’s surprising.”

“How so?” Andrew asked.

“How do you expect to defend your family if you’ve never fired a gun?”

“Why would I need to?”

Charlotte shook her head. “Never mind. Here, let me show you.” She showed Andrew how to load the shells into the shotgun. She’d washed her face of makeup, but she still smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon–at first, he’d thought it’d been her favourite perfume, but not he was certain it was her only perfume.

“Have you slept?” Andrew asked.

“I still haven’t reset my circadian rhythm for England time,” Charlotte said. “I’m sure it’ll come back eventually.”

“Hopefully,” Andrew said.

“Keep your finger off the trigger, and always keep it pointed at the ground away from me, your feet and the dogs, until you mean to kill something. Any questions?”

Andrew shook his head. “Not at this immediate moment, no.”

“Just follow me and try not to frighten the birds,” Charlotte said.

“I’ll try,” Andrew said.

It was far colder outside than he’d been expecting. Charlotte handed him a flat cap that had earflaps and he put it on, feeling a little warmer, even as his breath turned to fog. The dogs had followed them outside at Charlotte’s command; the twin braids she frequently wore with her military uniform had been turned into one, flowing across her shoulder from underneath her trilby.

“Is that a real ostrich feather?” Andrew asked, noting the feather stuck in the hatband.

“It is, South African ostrich,” Charlotte said. “The ostrich feather is an ancient symbol of the Prince of Wales.”

“It’s looks nice,” Andrew said.

Charlotte nodded her head.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, Charlotte, what are we doing?” Andrew asked, suppressing the urge to shudder as a chill ran through him. The wind gusted through him, but he barely felt it through his clothing.

“Hunting pheasant,” Charlotte answered. “Most of the time we use small armies of beaters and dogs to rouse the birds from their cover. That’s never seemed sporting to me, to be honest. Upland hunting, using dogs to flush the birds…that’s true sport.”

“Do you hunt often?”

“My mother loves hunting…well, she loves shooting.” Charlotte stopped at the top of a small hill and looked down. “She had training from the Royal Virginian Sniper School, but she couldn’t serve because women weren’t allowed to. Things are a bit different now, but my mother always wanted her children to be able to fight for themselves if it came to it.” She turned back to Andrew. “Do you remember the Indian mutiny in the 80s?”

“A bit before my time, but I do know if it, yes,” Andrew said.

“Jaipur was at the heart of it,” Charlotte said. “Before things become too bad, my grandfather was able to evacuate the women and children of his household south to Trivandrum in Kerala. But then…but then my grandfather’s own guards turned against him and murdered those who remained.” Charlotte sighed. “I pray that Papa has a long reign on the throne so that one day I may become a general officer on my own merits.”

“You’re going overseas again?”

“Yes. Not for another few weeks, and not back to Afghanistan. Papa mentioned something about a deployment to southern China, or perhaps even Indochina.” The dogs were growing restless, and one of them whined. “They wanted to make me a staff officer, but they won’t take my platoon from me. Not yet, not until they pin another pip on my shoulder.” The dogs continued to whine. “I suppose we should get to it, then.”

They walked downhill towards a row of tall grasses and wetlands, zig-zagging as they want. The dogs perked up their heads, and Charlotte nodded her head. “Tracks,” she said. With a few sharp words to the dogs, two of them went tearing off towards the grass while the third remained, patient. Charlotte set herself and kept her eyes raised above the treeline. There was a great squawking and the birds rose above the branches, dark shapes against the streaks of grey and pink that coloured the early morning sky. Charlotte raised her shotgun and fired both barrels. Andrew was sure that he saw a few birds fall.

“Pippin, go fetch,” Charlotte said. “Andrew, you’re next.”

“What?” Andrew asked flatly.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you,” Charlotte said. They walked over to the line of trees and picked up the birds the archduchess had shot. The dogs were waiting with four birds. With the dogs in tow and birds in hand, Charlotte and Andrew walked up another hill and then down. “This is a good spot.” She ordered the dogs forward and put down her own shotgun and birds. “Turn this way, Andrew.” Charlotte stood behind Andrew and put her hands on his hips, orienting him in the direction the dogs had gone. She then took his arms and helped him raise his shotgun.

Charlotte was pressing herself so close to him that she could feel her heartbeat. It sounded fast, as if she was nervous or excited about something. But what?

“There they are,” Charlotte whispered, her words warm against his ears. She guided his arms, tracking the flight of the birds. “Pull the trigger.”

Andrew did as he was told, and the shotgun bucked in his hands.

“Again,” Charlotte said.

Andrew fired the shotgun’s second barrel.

“You did it. I think you got some,” Charlotte said, sounding excited and happy for the first time. She kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s see what you bagged.”

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