6. Of partridges and sewers - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
It was half past nine in the morning, and King George VI, Emperor of India, Defender of the Faith, was just finishing his breakfast and meditating on partridges and sewers.
The failure of the latter had come between him and his ordinary late-December pursuit of the former, and he’d been disposed to resent that at first, but actually there’d been compensations to being at Balmoral at this unfamiliar time of year, away from the midges of high summer and the wild winds of Autumn.
Take today: the snows of the day before yesterday lay pristine and beautiful upon the high tops under a tranquil pale blue sky - the brief ghost of a crescent moon was still visible on the western horizon - and the clear fresh air of the Highlands blew through the open casement (and, he had to admit, through various random door-frames and window-seatings. His great-grandmother had had a sure eye for the picturesque, but put up with much when it came to lack of comfort in domestic architecture).
Walking, whether on the edges of the hillside or even just in the park, would today make a man glory in being alive.
He speared another morsel of cold grouse (which was either just on the turn or richly gamey, according to viewpoint) and was aware of Wentworth hovering in the doorway. He gestured vigorously with the tines of his fork.
“Come in, man, don’t stand there dithering!”
Wentworth obeyed, ducking his head in a brief, awkward sketch of a bow: the King wondered if he would ever achieve the relaxed ease of his predecessor.
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s a priority call. From the Admiralty. If your Majesty would care -“
The equerry might be an idiot, but he wasn’t a blithering idiot. If he thought something required the Royal attention before he had even finished his breakfast then it would almost certainly be worth his attention. Nor did their Lords of the Admiralty trouble his holiday repose for anything routine. He nodded.
“I’ll take it.”
Even the buzz of static on the line sounded urgent. He listened for some moments.
“What? One of the Fortress class? A mutiny? No coherent signals? Broken out of the exercise group and heading East with no explanation? Yes of course you may -“
Abruptly, the line went dead. He shook the handset and rattled the receiver impatiently for a few moments. There was no response.
Wentworth, his face the colour of fortnight-old milk, craned his head into the room. “Sir? The milk delivery boy appears to be lying dead in the shrubbery, sir. And no-one has heard from Peterson since he went down towards the village with the post-bag, an hour and a half ago. Sir.”
Long - very long ago now - he had bathed with the Tsarina and her Princesses, his cousins, off Osborne Bay, daring them to venture into the chilly, yeasty surf of Spithead. And, still long ago but as vividly as yesterday he had heard the news of their deaths at the hands of an outraged people. Today, perhaps, it had come to him.
He nodded his head with a grave briskness. If it must, it must.
At such times one’s words, he knew, would inevitably be recorded by someone and echo down the years to come.
“Well then,” the King said, a cold will overwhelming the natural hestitation in his speech on such an occasion, “it would seem we may be under siege. I suggest you go to the gun-room and dish out the weapons and ammunition all round. And, since you have to pass the kitchens on your way down: my compliments to Mrs McBeeton, and please let her know the ham was excellent as always, but I doubt the cold game will bear another outing.”
Wentworth nodded and withdrew.