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

When his captors at last removed the blindfold his eyes dazzled and swam with water, as if he had looked into the noontide sun.

Lestrade snarled inwardly.

No-one who had subjected him to the humiliation of capture would be forgiven. Nor those who had failed him and fled when the field was all but won, when it needed but one more push forward to victory. Nor the louse-ridden sons of whores who had burnt and despoiled his lands, entrapped him most despicably and borne him away to who-knew-where, his eyes covered.

His vision settled. Sally Donovan was sitting directly opposite him, her heavy skirts, split for riding, falling each side of the three-legged stool which she straddled. They were in some rough-walled space lit by torches which flared, with much oily smoke, from sconces in the walls. A cellar, perhaps; the roof and walls were part living rock, part barrel-vaulting. Shadows danced in their cornices and hollows.

Sally smiled at him with a good cheer that seemed almost indecent.

“Well, Rupert. Fancy us meeting here, after everything. Have you a better answer this time round?”

His throat was parched from the privations of his journey. His tongue seemed swollen to thrice its normal size. Still with the same air of demented cheer, Sally picked up the Bohemian crystal jug (his own, most prized Bohemian crystal jug) and poured water into a chased goblet. He recognised the goblet, too. She held it to his lips, since his hands remained bound behind his back. He swallowed greedily, even as he squirmed at the indignity of it all.

“Answer?” he croaked.

Her sunny smile never faltered.

“As to when you’re planning to put into practice that proposal of marriage you made to me before we left Italy. You do recall that, I hope?”

Her words drifted past his ears, irrelevant as the buzzing of summer bees. His full attention was on the goblet, the jug and, most of all, Sally Donovan’s impossible presence here, wherever “here” might be.

“You bitch. You thief. You bitch. You thieving fucking bitch.”

“That’s no way to talk about your intended. ‘Specially when it’s not true. You lost Castle Lestrade, all by yourself. I told you to send for reinforcements, not go out after the reivers yourself.”

He gritted his teeth.

“And I told you no-one would have come if I called. Even if there’d been time.”

How could she be so blind to a truth which, for weeks now, had been as much a part of him as his skin?

Ever since that awful morning he had wakened late, the previous night sour on his furred tongue, to find Charis and that appalling animal of hers gone he had been caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Why could Sally, whose wit had been almost more of an attraction than her beauty, not see that simple truth?

Even without allies, even with half his best troopers dispersed throughout the Borders in a futile search for the Princess, even with Fernihurst and his rabble half-way back to their home, a nascent feud already simmering between their houses, the reiver attack had come not as threat but as a desperate, unlooked for hope of salvation.

Maybe — just maybe — the spectacular fireworks of a gallant defence of his land against massive odds might slake the King’s wrath. Lestrade had, after all, stood close to him during the long years of exile, tending his flame in secret. Who of that clandestine brotherhood was left now? Not Douglas, killed on that rash sea-wolf adventure. Moran, after the spectacular coup of the Reaching Beck Bridge, was long overdue on his return to Court, unless he had re-emerged while Lestrade was occupied elsewhere. Even before he had left Gondal Town it was whispered Traquair declined daily, his episodes of aphasia or blank-eyed confusion becoming almost impossible to hide.

A victorious Lestrade might have hoped to trade on past loyalty and on the King’s growing isolation. A gamble, yes, but he had been a gambler from his youth. Throwing his lot in with the exiled Prince had been the greatest of wagers, and how it had answered — until the day that Prince, now King James had come to him and with hints and significant gestures set him on the path that led to the Cock o’ the North Fair. (Odd, how it had not occurred to him until today how indirect the whole approach had been: he could have sworn he had been told in terms to seduce the Princess but now he looked back her name had never been mentioned from beginning to end.)

He groaned. Sally’s expression changed. She moved forwards.

“Let’s get that rope off your wrists. We’ll be moving out soon, and you’ll need to start getting the feeling back into your hands before anyone expects you to hold a horse’s reins with them.”

He blinked, incredulous.

“Moving out? Moving out where?”

“To the coast, of course. Holy Virgin forgive me for breaking my oath, but if you could manage to shift that fetching arse of yours before the ship either rots and breaks up or pisses off back to Venice, we’ll be breathing good Italian air by the time Sunday rolls round.”

He had lost track of the days; Sunday meant nothing to him. In any event, the stark unreason of Sally’s words caught him short.

“The coast? Are you mad? The King will have spies in every seaport, and our descriptions posted to every last one of them.”

Sally’s teeth shone very white. “Doubtless that’s true but — where did you think we were? Not your King. Not your coast. We came through the Angora passes in the dark before you woke up. Also, the second half of your ransom isn’t due until you’re safely delivered on the other shore, so you can bet your life — in fact, technically you will be betting your life, but you then always were a gamester — that the families who have us in charge will make sure that James’ men don’t get to you before they’ve been paid.”

“The second half?” He had not intended it to come out aloud.

She shrugged. “Call it an advance on my dowry. I told you my family’s credit passes good throughout the three kingdoms, didn’t I?”

The faintest glimmer of light dawned. Castle Lestrade had fallen and James of Gondal’s enmity was ferocious, his tentacles capable of stretching across Europe. But beyond Europe? The great mercantile families of Europe spread their wings east and west, from the fur trading posts of Hudson’s Bay — he shuddered — to fabulous Cochin, and throughout the East Indies. Yes. The East Indies. Colossal fortunes could be made in those lands of spices and jewels, the kind that made a lord of Gondal look like a peasant. More, the thing in itself would be something. To see mountains high enough to support the weight of the sky; palaces of emperors roofed in gold; dense green forests, tiger-haunted; on far desert shores pick up coins dropped by armies of Alexander —

Lestrade drew a deep breath.

Even before the last catastrophe, he had known these three years his affairs were so entangled only a miracle would extricate him. Once, the accession of James Moriarty had seemed that miracle. The King had known it too, he realised. That had been the inner meaning of his secret smile, when he had given Lestrade his instructions for the Pentecost fair.

His thoughts swirled like black bats. Even if he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, what reward could James of Gondal have offered save only the means to make his fortune by an advantageous marriage? And now, despite the King, such a marriage was being pressed upon him. And what a marriage, now one looked properly at the business. True, Sally was not a woman of family, but in the circumstances he could hardly complain about that. As to the rest — she was well-educated, accomplished, rich, clever (as the contrivances around his ransom proved) and excessively in love with him. A very fine woman, of large fortune, in love with him. He would be a fool to throw away such a gift.

As best as his cramped body could contrive, he essayed a bow.

“Madam. When we reach Italy, it would do me great honour were you to consent to become my wife. I will ask the blessings of your family upon our union when we meet them.”

Longbourn was in turmoil: Mama sequestered in her room allowing only Hill to attend on her; Kitty, guilt-ridden and sulky; Mary, pompous and unbearable and Jane stuck with managing the lot of them and, until the return of the holiday party, a troop of infant Gardiners to boot. Her father had indeed gone up to Gondal Town in an effort to find Lydia, though, from what little Elizabeth could discern of his plans in this regard, this exertion seemed too dilettantish to be likely to prove effective.

Although, on the road, her discussions with Uncle Gardiner had led Elizabeth to feel less gloomy about Lydia’s prospects, once confronted with the reality of home all her fears flooded back in fourfold strength. How could Wickham have any fear that her father would take drastic action to defend his daughter’s honour, once having seen him in his own home circle?

Nor did she have the comfort of her aunt and uncle. Mr Gardiner declared that, knowing Gondal Town better than her father, he needed his assistance in seeking Jane, and his wife said Jane looked worn out with care and the least she could do was to take themselves and the children off her shoulders. Their carriage left Longbourn within a scant ten hours of entering it, leaving Elizabeth and Jane in charge of the house.

Nor did that prove an easy matter. Mr Wickham’s reputation, both for profligacy and seduction, was a matter for the wildest gossip in and around Meryton. There seemed no story about him which some neighbour or another was not prepared to cap. Jane and Elizabeth, however they tried to shut their ears to gossip, came very close to despair.

The final straw came when a letter arrived, addressed to her father. Jane had instructions to open everything which arrived, and Elizabeth, recognising Mr Collins’ crabbed hand on the direction, craned over her sister’s shoulder to read along with her.

After a few professions of condolence, expressed in the most patronising and insulting of terms, her father’s cousin struck to the meat of the matter. It seemed he had taken it upon himself to inform Lady Catherine de Bough and her niece of the whole affair, which the Duplessis family had hoped to keep tight within their own family circle.

Mr Collins’ letter built to a crescendo which Elizabeth, albeit reading with mounting anger at his presumption, could not but admit to be more true than it was kind:

This false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family?

That bit hard, and the pain did not ease. She spent the night tossing in her lumpy bed, sleep far away. Open or shut, whichever way she turned Mr Darcy’s face was before her eyes. A man who had once thought the niece of a country attorney and the daughter of a gentleman of modest estate beneath his dignity would never ally himself to the sister of a woman who had played the wanton with a soldier: a soldier, too, with whom he had the best cause for ancient enmity. All her hopes were sunk and Lydia’s folly had weighted their sinking.

She rose from her bed scarcely later than dawn, exhausted but unresting, and so became the first member of the family to see the messenger ride in, bearing a letter in Uncle Gardiner’s familiar hand. It was addressed to Jane and Elizabeth jointly, and she paused for a moment, unwilling to open it without her sister present. But Jane had slept in for the first time in days, and Elizabeth thought that whether the letter brought joy or despair, Jane could face either better if rested. She broke the seal.

The letter, as it turned out, provoked sheer, downright fury.

Her uncle wrote that Colonel Forster, to whom he had applied for intelligence, had been unable to provide anything of use. It was certain that Wickham had no near relations living, and he seemed equally bereft of friends, whether within the regiment or those who had known him before. Worse, his finances were truly bad. It appeared he had left gaming debts behind him to a very considerable amount. Colonel Forster believed that more than a thousand thaler would be necessary to clear his expenses at Lake Elderno. He owed a good deal in town, but his debts of honour were still more formidable.

Worst of all was her uncle’s postscript: they might expect to see their father at home on the following day, since he had been rendered spiritless by the ill-success of all their endeavours and, as her uncle tactfully put it, had yielded to his entreaty that he would return to his family and leave it to Mr Gardiner to do whatever might be advisable.

In the privacy of the garden, she stamped her foot. Return home, now? The very thing that, should Wickham hear of it, would cement him in his view that Lydia had no-one to stand up for her or fight for her interests?

The garden was shielded from the sun until the later part of the day. Before Elizabeth had walked two circuits round it, hot anger had solidified into cold resolve. She drew a deep breath. Running lightly across the dew-soaked grass she shortly attained the room she shared with Jane.

“Our uncle Gardiner has written. I took liberty of opening it, as you were sleeping, but you should read his news.”

Jane reared up amid the pillows, and Elizabeth cursed herself for giving false hope.

“It is, I am afraid, inconclusive, but the news of Papa needs to be heeded.”

Jane read, drooped, and looked up again.

“We need to take this to Mama.”

Mama took the news badly. What was utterly unexpected was how nearly Mama echoed Elizabeth’s thoughts in the garden.

“What, is he coming home, and without poor Lydia? Sure he will not leave Gondal Town before he has found them. Who is to fight Wickham, and make him marry her, if he comes away?”

Those word rang in Elizabeth’s head throughout the day. In the end, they decided her. Making an excuse to leave their labours in the still-room, where the work of bottling and drying the bounty of high summer had to continue, no matter how many sisters might be astray in the world, she made her way indoors. Taking care no-one observed her, she crept indoors, changed into one of the plain, serviceable travelling gowns which had done such signal duty over the dusty roads of Northern Gondal and then packed, quickly, a travelling bundle. How fortunate she still had monies saved from her trip with the Gardiners: she had been planning to buy a remembrance of the trip but not found anything suitable before it had been cut short. Now, of course, the holiday had turned into something at once both impossible to forget and from which her memory flinched. No matter. The purse would pay her travelling expenses, at least. After a little thought, she also tucked her small reserves of jewellery into the sewn-in pocket of her stays, thrust the travel bag into one of the large covered baskets the Longbourn family used when taking charity to the cottagers of Meryton and district and stole out down the back stairs.

She had not intended to evade Jane, only her other sisters, and on spotting that fair head bent over a bundle of sewing, alone in the smaller front parlour, she stole in and laid a hand on her arm. As Jane lifted her head, Elizabeth put a finger to her lips, then moved to close the door.

Jane’s eyes widened as she took in the basket. Before she could say anything, Elizabeth nodded.

“I’m going away. I’m going up to Gondal Town to see my uncle and aunt, and to help find Lydia.”

Not merely her garnet earrings and the sapphires she had won from Mama at Hallowe’en were tucked into the secret pocket in her stays. Hidden paper crackled as she moved. I implore you to burn these pages once you have read them, lest what follows come to eyes other than your own Mr Darcy had commanded, and yet each time Elizabeth had shrunk from thrusting his letter into the fire. And in it there was intelligence of Mr Wickham’s past which might be of use in the search for Lydia, if she could only be permitted to use it. It would take too much explanation to convince Papa — she shrank from the attempt — but she did not think she flattered herself to think that Uncle and Aunt Gardiner had grown used to her being competent on the road. Perhaps the sense she had taken away from Elbe, of having been a grown woman in a household where women had consequence, had stuck.

“Travelling alone? Lizzie, your reputation —”

Unable to help herself, she snorted. “Reputation? What reputation do any of the Duplessis girls have now?”

Jane made no answer: what answer could there be? Conscious of having hurt the dearest thing that existed in the whole world, equally conscious of having spoken no more than the truth, Elizabeth opened her arms and enfolded Jane in a hug.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered into her sister’s hair. “There is no real risk. I shall stay tonight at Bessie Walnut’s. I shall catch the coach from there early tomorrow, where no-one from Meryton will see me board and be with our aunt and uncle long before nightfall.”

Jane’s face cleared, as she knew it would. Bessie Walnut — the very name had come from her infant lisping of a surname too hard to pronounce — had been their nursemaid, hers and Elizabeth’s. She would have been Mary’s, too, but two months before Mary’s birth Ben, the youngest footman, a shy, solemn young man with hands and feet far too big for him, had announced that expectations from a remote relative had unexpectedly matured, so he was able to realise his lifetime’s ambition of buying a run-down old inn on the road to Gondal Town, two leagues south of Meryton. More to the point, he had now found himself able to make an offer he’d been burning to utter these last three years. Bessie had accepted, and would become his wife in four weeks time.

So, despite Mama’s lamentations, Bessie Walnut had left Longbourn and twelve years later was the mistress of a flourishing concern and mother of four little ones of her own. They had seen her seldom, but when Mary, Lydia and Kitty had had the measles Jane and Elizabeth had been sent to stay with her, to be safe from the infection. It had been six weeks of pure delight. Mama, arriving to bring them home, had thrown herself on Bessie’s neck and wept tears of sheer relief to see them hale and cheerful.

That had been six years ago and parcels of game and the best of the girls’ outgrown gowns were still sent from Longbourn to the inn on the road and Bessie still returned a barrel of beer for the harvest home celebration each year. Whatever secrets she entrusted to Bessie, they would be safe, and she would sleep safe and respectably beneath her roof.

“Wait a moment,” Jane whispered. “I have ten thalers in my shell box. Take them — and oh, Lizzie, good luck. Bring Lydia back to us.”

The last carriage rolled down the great avenue. Georgiana waved her handkerchief with what she hoped looked like sincerity until it vanished into the woods.

Mrs Annesley, beside her on Pemberley front steps, smiled.

“That all went off very well, my dear. And now, I believe Mrs Reynolds was saying something about tea in the Blue drawing room.”

The last few days had been trying. Even the prospect of tea and of having Pemberley to herself at last (except for Mrs Annesley, who did not count) failed entirely to soothe Georgiana’s ruffled spirits.

“I do wish my brother hadn’t been called away to Gondal Town. Or that Miss Duplessis could have stayed. I did like her so very much and I was sure they said they intended to remain in Lambton for at least a week.”

“I daresay Mr Gardiner had some business worries and felt he needed to be on the spot to deal with them. It’s a very uncertain time for merchants, especially with all this brigandage going on, and everything having to be sent round by sea and so forth.”

Of course, that topic would be on Mrs Annesley’s mind. Caroline Bingley had been utterly ridiculous about it, as if they were all in danger of being murdered in their beds. Her clinginess and hysterics had become quite insupportable and ten times worse once Fitzwilliam left. Though, of course, if fear of them had hastened the Bingleys’ departure, she could hardly think badly of the brigands. Which reminded her —

Georgiana cleared her throat.

“Mrs Annesley, do you think it’s true? I mean, that it’s really the Duke of Malham’s younger son who’s behind cutting the Great North Road and kidnapping the bishop?”

Mrs Annesley pursed her lips.

“Do you know, my dear, I think the afternoon has turned out so fine that it might be pleasanter to have our tea in the little summer house? I don’t know about you, but it’s so peaceful now we have Pemberley to ourselves and I think we should indulge ourselves for once. I’ll pass word to Mrs Reynolds.”

The summer house looked enchanting, the wicker chairs made comfortable with cushions and bright rugs. Steam rose from the silver pot above the spirit burner. Mrs Annesley, with that firm but gentle manner of hers, told the hovering footman that no, they would serve themselves. Careless of decorum, Georgiana lent back amid the cushions and let her eye-lids droop.

“I collect that the Duke of Malham was a friend of your family,” Mrs Annesley murmured.

Our family,” Georgiana corrected, mindful of her brother’s strictures that while Mrs Annesley might be an impoverished widow of a consumptive scholar, she was nevertheless their third cousin on their mother’s side and no-one, from the servants to Aunt Catherine, should be allowed to ignore her claims of birth.

“Thank you, my dear. Sometimes, you remind me so much of your dear mother. I recall when when she had her coming-out ball the Duke was there. He was the great parti of that season, of course, but your mother only had eyes for your father from the moment they were introduced. I expect that would have been a great relief for the poor man; every other mother and their girls were round like bees to a honey-pot.”

As if on cue, a wasp came buzzing over the tea-table. The yellow on its back shone bright in the sun, like that extraordinary silk turban Caroline Bingley affected. Recalling Miss Bingley, Georgiana suppressed a giggle. She could see exactly how it must have been with the Duke and the debutantes. Levity only lasted a moment, though. The Duke, who had been almost as much a parti as a widower than he had as a young man, was beyond any woman’s reach now. And so was his heir —

Silence fell heavy on the summerhouse.

“The Duke and Duchess used to bring the boys to stay at Pemberley, when I was much younger.” Georgiana spoke quickly, and rather at random.

Mrs Annesley vouchsafed a brief, acknowledging nod. It was enough. Words burst out as from a breached dam.

“Crispian would go fishing or shooting with Fitzwilliam or playing at soldiers round the old peel tower and Julian would be left with me. I think he’d rather have gone with his brother, but he was too well mannered to leave me. He had tremendously good manners, even as a little boy. His terrier once got at my doll and tore its body quite to bits — I was heartbroken, but he told me to leave her to him, he’d look after her, and next time he came he brought her back as good as new, with a fresh wig and a new body and dress, all trimmed with scraps of real fur. He had persuaded his mother’s tiring maid to help him repair her.” She dropped her voice. “It’s impossible to imagine Julian turned brigand.”

“As impossible as it might be to imagine his father turned traitor?”

At the unfamiliar, brittle tone in Mrs Annesley’s voice, Georgiana’s eyes flew wide open. There was nothing strange about her companion’s expression: she was the same calm, gentle personas ever. Yet —- this was what justice demanded, after all, and it turned out it was no easier to say to one woman in a deserted summerhouse than it had been to declare to the serried ranks of Gondal, as she had been forced in her dreams.

“I could never suppose any of the Malhams — not his Grace, nor Crispian, nor Julian turned traitor. A king who could think them so would be a king most sorely misled. Or —” Georgiana paused and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Or a king given over to evil.”

She shrank back amid the cushions, conscious both of having gone too far and of profound weariness, as if acknowledging a heavy burden had made it feel heavier still. Dimly, she perceived Mrs Annesley patting her hand.

“Well said, my dear. No, we will not speak of it further. We are alone, yes, but even here we may be observed from upper windows, or from behind the high hedges. Have another cup of tea. Laugh and sleep. But do not betray your innermost thoughts, no, not even to me. James, I had not seen you there. How clever of you to notice. Yes: we are in need of more water for the urn.”

It was cold in the inn yard, even though it was yet high summer. Last night had been unpleasant. Elizabeth wished she did not feel ashamed to admit it. She had not ventured into the common parts of the inn; Bessie Walnut would not have permitted it, and when she heard the snatches of rough song and coarse speech drifting up from the common room to her open window she knew why. She had eaten in her room, from a tray brought up by Bessie herself, and had put a chest against the door when she retired to bed. Even so, she had not found sleep easy to come by and had roused up from her bed far earlier than she need. Now she was sitting outside on the mounting block, wrapped in a travelling cloak that swathed her face and made her body shapeless. The few people about at this early hour cast sidelong glances at her, wondering what a young woman was doing travelling on her own to the great city and evidently reaching no creditable conclusions.

Prompt to its hour, the coach rolled up to the inn. Though its outside was full, there were only two passengers inside the coach when Elizabeth boarded: a fastidious young lawyer, his nose in a book and an old woman (so Elizabeth surmised) who was slumped in a corner seat, as well wrapped as Elizabeth and a linen square over her face. Stertorous snores rose from her: small surprise, since as Elizabeth stumbled over her out-flung leg on her way to the opposite seat she breathed in the aroma of stale brandy. The lawyer tutted, and turned over another page, the coachman called up his horses, the great wheels rolled and they were off.

If the journey in company with Sir William and Maria Lucas had been tedious, this was insupportable. The leather of the coach interior was worn, peeling, and odiferous. As the day warmed up, the heat of the black cloak became insupportable but Elizabeth dared not throw it off. The lawyer read on and on, the old woman snored, the scenery jolted past, flat and monotonous and Elizabeth, long before they came in sight of the outskirts of Gondal Town, was heartily repenting her rash impulse. What, after all, could she, a girl, do where her father and uncle had failed? Even if she found Lydia, when had her youngest sister ever listened to her? What — oh, God, what was she even going to say to Mr Wickham, if she confronted him?

Even the few moments when she was able to doze brought evil dreams and left her with a dry, sickly taste in her mouth. Still, insupportable as the journey was, they finally crawled in beneath Northgate Bar. The lawyer, showing none of the ordinary courtesy of a gentleman, was up and out of the coach like a startled rabbit, almost before the wheels had stopped moving.

The old woman roused herself. Her lower face was still swathed in shawls but above it her eyes were very bright, almost as blue as the sapphire earrings in Elizabeth’s hidden bundle. It occurred to Elizabeth she must have been pretty, once. Now she was staring, absolutely staring at her, making her flush with alarm and anger: What has she spotted, am I recognised? mingled with How dare the drunken old hag scrutinise me in that impertinent way? Who does she think she is?

“Lizzie,” her mother’s familiar voice said, “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but since you are here, we’d better make the best of it. Take off that ridiculous cloak and smooth your hair. You can’t go into Gondal Town looking like a hoyden who’s just tumbled off a haystack.”