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Chapter Eight - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall

“I’m sure I can’t think what Charlotte has to write so much about,” Mama observed disagreeably.

The envelope was too thick; there must be a letter from Uncle John concealed within. How fortunate that Charlotte’s situation permitted her to send letters already franked, so Mama had no financial leverage to compel Elizabeth to share their contents. Such pressures as family habit and maternal disapprobation put at her disposal, however, Mama deployed to fullest measure.

Elizabeth affected a disinterested air. “For the first time she has her own home, cows and poultry. Can you wonder she is eager to share her impressions?”

Mama sniffed, but Elizabeth detected pity and regret in the sound. Once, I too was a bride. Must married life always come to this? Had her parents (so dissimilar in tastes, so seemingly ill-suited) begun their married life with the same cold calculation which repelled her when she encountered it in Charlotte?

She coughed. “May I have your receipt for curing the bumblefoot, ma’am? I collect Charlotte requested it in her last, and I omitted to send it. No doubt this is why she writes again so soon.”

Mama puffed up. “Bumblefoot! Aye, you may have it, but be sure to let her know I have not had need of it this many a long year. Depend upon it, she will be allowing her fowl-houses to become too damp. She should ensure they are properly aired out the first dry spell she gets, and have words with a carpenter about lifting the laying pens off the floor. And make sure the floor is as smooth as can be contrived.”

“I shall be sure to let her know,” Elizabeth promised, and made her escape upstairs. Jane’s prolonged absence in Gondal Town made their shared bedroom chill and forlorn. No wonder Uncle John’s letters been such a beacon. She had only meant to write once, in a vague spirit of defiance, to show in some way she did not even understand herself that she was on the side of Mr Wickham against Mr Darcy. To strike a blow for Jane. She had not expected to find her uncle so understanding. He was older than Mama and divided from her not just by age but by masculine preoccupations in which Elizabeth could play no part. His letters, though, had proved quite the reverse. Sometimes, it felt like writing to Jane, albeit a Jane informed by knowledge of the wider world. Such a one, no doubt, as Jane could have become, had she only married Mr Bingley and taken her rightful place among the cream of Gondal’s society.

At first, Elizabeth wondered if the Princess might have had a hand in the correspondence. That notion, improbable to begin with, foundered as time wore on. His charge seemed, in Uncle John’s account, to be little more than a royal cipher. He spoke of her progress at white-work, at her musical skill, at the hours she devoted to her charitable works. Elizabeth learned nothing at all of whether a real person breathed beneath his cultivated picture of Royal perfection.

It was not for Royal gossip that she pursued the correspondence.

Once Uncle John let his pen stray from the confines of Court life, his delicately drawn miniatures of life in Gaaldine delighted her. Though Elizabeth had travelled little within her own land and never ventured beyond its borders, she felt on reading her uncle’s letters that she had herself fallen too readily into her country’s besetting sin: jealousy of place. Gondal was a land of majestic uplands, jewel-bright mountain lakes and soaring peaks. Its people, it was often said, too readily dismissed the two southern countries as gardens, not landscapes: carefully fenced, highly cultivated gardens, with neat borders and delicate flowers, but lacking the wild splendour of their own land.

Uncle John wrote of Gaaldine’s ports: half a hundred different languages spoken on the dockside and the air heavy with incense out of Arabia and spices from the Indies. He told how the new civic buildings in Gaaldine’s capital bid fair to equal any in Italy or the Imperial states. But he spoke, too, of darker things. The same tensions stirred south as well as north of the border. Like everyone else around Elizabeth (save for Lydia and Kitty, who did not count) Uncle John seemed convinced there could no other end for it but war.

Take his account of a diplomatic visit the Princess had taken to Brendelhame in the autumn, where a demagogue had inspired a drink-inflamed mob to attack the Governor’s residence in which the Princess was lodged. The local women had rallied to defend the residence, facing off against sons, brothers, husbands and fathers in the crowd. Would those whom Providence placed in far higher stations in life had shown similar loyalty Uncle John observed waspishly. Clouded by his partisanship of the Princess as it was, his resulting description cast a startling light on tensions at the very heart of Gaaldine.

The Governor had been removed from office and remained under house arrest in the capital. Even if his fault had stopped at negligence, Elizabeth assumed such would have been his fate. But had it been negligence alone? Uncle John’s correspondence, frustratingly, dropped hints but did not carry them through. Could there have been treachery? If so, who else might be implicated?

More than once in the days after receiving one of Uncle John’s letters she had braved Papa’s disapproval (never extended as seriously in her direction as in that of her sisters or Mama) to enter the library, and study maps and histories. More than once Papa, intrigued despite himself by the unusual direction of his favourite daughter’s studies, had pointed out volumes of interest, or expounded on matters which were ancient history to Elizabeth, but to which Papa’s account gave the freshness of recent disappointments. While she never alluded to Uncle John, for fear of being drawn into dangerous waters, she collected from Papa’s account that the estrangement between him and his wife’s brother after Crown Princess Felicia had agreed to marry her cousin Ambrosine had been gentle, unaccompanied by remonstrations or oaths, but conclusive, nonetheless.

He chose the perfect. I opted for the best, Papa said, in one of those precious, disjointed moments in the library. But when Elizabeth pressed him to define his terms, he would not, turning towards the window and looking out into the garden, where the blossom under the influence of a sharp south-easterly wind was counterfeiting the snows of last month’s north-westerlies.

She had been half-hoping for Papa’s companionship when she abandoned her chamber and, the letter still half-read in her hand, made her way to the library. It fell to the butler to announce her father had been called away by his forester to some crisis caused, she gathered, by troops from the encampment having wantonly chopped down a covert of thriving young beech trees.

Baulked of this comfort, she returned to Uncle John’s letter, only to find it a disappointment. With the passes opening both to Gondal and to Angria, and the rumours of war louder than ever, it stood to reason that the Princess’s advisor would be on his travels once more. He hinted that they might be taking a further diplomatic tour of the southern provinces of Gaaldine and that in consequence he feared he might be unable to write for some time.

Dissatisfied and empty, Elizabeth turned to Charlotte’s letter. In her own bereft mood she was more sensitive to the real loneliness which, without one single word to express discontent, nonetheless radiated from her friend’s letter. She was depending on Elizabeth’s visit, with a kind of despairing hope that made Elizabeth ashamed.

With the briefest acknowledgement to her mother and sisters, Elizabeth found her outer garments and thicker shoes, and made her way to Lucas Lodge. She returned some hours later to surprise Papa, still mourning for his slaughtered trees, with the news that all was settled and that she proposed to depart for Hunsford with Sir William Lucas and his daughter Maria in five days time.

Charlotte’s letters painted a picture of Hunsford and their great neighbour’s domain of Rosings Park which differed little from her husband’s save that she softened his wilder flights of enthusiasm. Sir William, however, did not apply any nicety of judgment in differentiating their accounts. For him, the accord his daughter had found with her new husband was of phoenix-like rarity. He congratulated her, himself and Mr Collins indiscriminately on it all the way from Meryton, until Elizabeth was on the point of screaming. Maria, overcome by having ventured so far from the familiar fields of home, and in internal agonies from the constant rocking and bumping of the Lucas family carriage, hardly ventured a word.

With such companions on her journey, even the sight of her cousin outside the door of their house with Charlotte tucked two paces behind him came as a relief.

The house itself was substantial and well-built, standing a little back from the road amid a riot of vines and climbing plants. The distance from Meryton to Hunsford was not great, but the latter’s proximity to the sea and south-facing slopes tempered its climate to such a degree that Elizabeth felt she had travelled a month into the future, as well as twenty leagues from home.

“My husband delights in his garden,” Charlotte confided to her as they passed for the first time beneath her roof. “He devotes hours to tending it.”

“And the care he puts into it shines through,” Elizabeth agreed, grateful to have a compliment she could pay without any shade of equivocation.

“I confess, it is such a healthful exercise, I encourage it as much as I can.”

The genius of her stratagem became clear with every moment of their tour of the house. Despite Charlotte’s broad hints that she should be allowed the bride’s customary prerogative of showing off her new home to her family, Mr Collins insisted on carrying out that office. The most scrupulous of inventory-takers could not have accused him of omitting the smallest chest or the most insignificant of platters. Only Charlotte’s intervention on the grounds that her sister and friend were drooping from thirst and hunger saved Maria and Elizabeth from a similarly exacting tour of the pastures and outbuildings.

What passed for conversation at the supper to which they eventually sat down continued this pattern. Charlotte spoke very little, except to press upon her guests some delicacy or other from the well-spread table. Her father and husband talked of public affairs, or rather, Mr Collins parroted his patron’s opinions and Sir William exclaimed, “How true! How penetrating! How profound!” at appropriate intervals. Maria, plainly still feeling the effects of travelling, ate little and said less. It was a relief when Charlotte showed them upstairs to the guest chamber and Elizabeth could finally close her eyes and shut out the multiple trivial annoyances of the day.

The day dawned brighter. The smell of fresh-made coffee drifting up the stairs lured Elizabeth downstairs to the breakfast room. The warmth of Charlotte’s smile as she entered even surpassed the warmth of the freshly baked rolls, nestled in the folds of a linen napkin.

“Papa and Mr Collins have breakfasted already. The morning was so fine and dry, and Mr Collins was anxious to show Rosings Park to Papa. We enjoy the greatest freedom to roam the park, you know. He wanted me to wake you and Maria so we could all go together, but Maria was so done up from travelling yesterday that I did not have the heart. Also, as I pointed out, the gentlemen will be able to see so much more without having to slow their steps to match ours.”

“Indeed not.” Elizabeth slid into place opposite Charlotte and reached for a roll. Their eyes met in perfect understanding across the bread-basket.

Maria had descended and breakfasted, and all three ladies settled down to their workbaskets by the time the gentlemen returned, glowing with exercise and pregnant with news. They had met — actually met — Lady Catherine, as she returned from the village in her pony carriage. Furthermore, she had extended an invitation to the entire party to dine with her at Rosings that very day. The gentlemen were in ecstasies of mutual congratulation, even as Maria and Elizabeth regarded each other with horror and Charlotte pressed the hand of friend and sister alike in silent commiseration. To be forced to dine with the lady of Rosings, the King’s own aunt, when they had barely had time to unpack their trunks, let alone refresh their clothes!

Abundant steam and hard work with goffering irons were their best resorts and the outcome at least presentable. As Elizabeth strolled damply through Rosings park, flanked by Maria and Sir William Lucas, she consoled herself by thinking that Lady Catherine could hardly be less censorious than her nephew, and since he had found fault with her appearance when she had brought all the advantages of home to her turnout, it might be safest to present herself a trifle crumpled, to avoid undue effort all round.

That degree of philosophical resignation was not, it appeared, shared by her hosts. Elizabeth became uncomfortably aware of a muttered discussion between husband and wife on the path behind her, in which her and Maria’s appearance figured largely. Her exasperation with her cousin increased. This whole farrago was entirely down to his lack of forethought. Let him take the consequences, if only, that was, he did not then take out his frustrations on Charlotte. A flicker of recollection stirred. It had been an article of faith for longer than she could remember that in disputes between her parents Papa must be in the right. It might be an effect of the distance, or of similarities in pitch and tone, but for the first time it struck her that Papa arguing with Mama and his cousin chiding Charlotte sounded more similar than it was comfortable to contemplate.

She shivered and looked back over her shoulder.

“Ought we not hurry a little? It would never do to be late.”

“So, Miss Duplessis, I understand Mr Collins is your father’s heir. For your sake, Mrs Collins, I am glad of it. Longbourn sounds a prettyish kind of small estate and I am sure you will do justice to it as its mistress most creditably when the time comes. But in general, I see no good reason to will property away from the female line. It was never thought necessary in my late husband’s family.”

With difficulty, Elizabeth resisted the temptation to enquire whether Lady Catherine’s views on female succession extended to her late sister’s family. However, nothing in that lady’s demeanour since the party’s arrival at Rosings suggested levity on any subject, least of all her great connections, would be either welcome or understood.

“And you have four sisters, I understand. What a charge for your poor mother. Tell me, what are their ages? Do they all play and sing? What of drawing?”

While Elizabeth had been prepared for Lady Catherine’s hauteur, her inquisitiveness came as a shock. Within the first quarter turn of their meeting, in addition to interrogating her about her sisters and exclaiming over the deficiencies of their education, she had forced Elizabeth to play the harpsichord, compared her fingering unfavourably to that of her absent ward, Miss Hooper, told her she must practise far more often, and generally inserted her nose so completely into Elizabeth’s affairs that she was almost on the point of feeling pity for Mr Darcy, who must have suffered like intrusions into his private affairs since before he was out of skirts.

Walking back across the park in the evening cool, Elizabeth reflected that she had, nonetheless, acquitted herself tolerably under the relentless barrage of questions. Lady Catherine’s interrogation had not entirely prevented her from enjoying a meal more extravagant than any which had previously passed her lips and there was much of interest in Rosings itself, should she ever be allowed to examine its treasures with a modicum of leisure. They were invited again for two nights hence, by which time Elizabeth hoped her dress and hair would be the best she might contrive, given her resources.

Sir William and Maria departed for Hunsford at the end of a week, both convinced that Charlotte had met with a husband and a patroness few women in the land could boast. Elizabeth, now suffering the undiluted attentions of Lady Catherine, ventured to differ a little from that conclusion.

The next meeting at Rosing following their departure produced the intelligence that Mr Darcy and his cousin, a Colonel Fitzwilliam, were due to arrive on their annual visit: an event in which their aunt took quite as much pride as if she had personally endowed Mr Darcy with his estate and fortune and promoted his cousin to his present rank herself. She seemed almost angry that Charlotte and Elizabeth had seen Mr Darcy frequently at Meryton and that Elizabeth had spent a week under the same roof.

“A carriage accident! Surely there was some grave mismanagement there. I have always advised my nephew never to travel except in the best appointed and maintained carriages and behind the quietest and best schooled horses, and I should expect his friend to do no less.”

Charlotte blinked a mute appeal across the dining table.

“Well-schooled indeed, ma’am,” Elizabeth interjected smoothly. “I have been driven behind those animals several times. But any beasts will struggle on an indifferent road, especially when that road is rendered a quagmire after a week’s autumn rains.”

“Ha. Indifferent roads; there you have it. Such things would never happen in this district.”

The excellence of the local roads carried the burden of conversation for the remainder of the visit.

For the next four days they saw nothing of the Rosings party, though Mr Collins, from his position in the front garden, overlooking the road, was able to report in minute detail the arrival of the gentlemen on horseback, their luggage trundling behind them in a coach. Sunday came, and with it church. The Rosings party were, as a matter of course, arrayed in state in the pew of honour.

Lady Catherine slightly acknowledged them and Mr Darcy, concealing any surprise he might have felt at seeing Elizabeth (but no, she corrected himself, Lady Catherine would have told him not merely of her presence but of all the minutest particulars of their conversations) made a surprisingly deep bow. The third person in the pew, presumably Colonel Fitzwilliam, directed towards them a smile so thoroughly welcoming and interested it was almost improper for church.

Elizabeth found herself regrettably distracted during Mass.

When all was over and the congregation had spilled out into the sunshine,
there came another novelty. The Rosings party, rather than making their usual rapid exit in the Rosings carriage, seemed minded to linger outside the church door. Much to Elizabeth’s surprise (and to Mr Collins’ ineffable gratification) they found themselves positively summoned to Lady Catherine’s side and introduced to her other nephew, the younger son of her brother the Earl, with a degree of conscious hauteur that could only make it all the clearer that the introduction had been at Colonel Fitzwilliam’s request.

Elizabeth dipped her knee and murmured the word, “Happy” several times, and rose to the dazzling intelligence that they were bidden to make up the evening party at Rosings that very day and to dinner on the morrow.

As the two groups parted, the carriage-and-horses group towards whatever extravagance by way of Sunday dinner had been bespoke at Rosings and the walking party towards Hunsford high street, Elizabeth could only reflect that Colonel Fitzwilliam, at least on first acquaintance, seemed a great deal more amiable than his cousin.