Chapter Eleven - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
Frances’ voice wobbled a little. A sense of sacrilege in initiating this meeting in a Cathedral, albeit one dedicated to a faith not her own, increased her shakiness.
She admonished herself to maintain control, hard as this might be before the armoured self-possession of the woman Court rumour claimed was the King’s discarded mistress. Especially when one was the daughter of the King’s current, very publicly known petite amie.
Gracefully, Lady Anthea inclined her head. “How unexpected to see you here. His Grace — we all supposed you to be still in the country. How may I assist you?”
Frances cast a quick look up and down the Cathedral transept. There was no-one within earshot. “Ma’am, if you would do me a great favour — I find myself in need of advice and — and a friend told me that there was no lady at Court whose advice was better worth hearing.”
Lady Anthea’s perfect brows arched. “How odd. Several of my friends (at least, they claim the title, and who am I to gainsay it?) would say that reputation belonged to your own mother.”
Hot blood mounted to her cheeks, but her voice came out commendably steady.
“Sometimes, ma’am, one’s mother is the last person one would wish to ask for advice.”
Those dark brows reached even higher. “True. By the same token, I sincerely hope that the confidence you are proposing to share with me is not that the Crown Prince has left you with child? The King is angry enough with his brother as it is: the merest trifle more on the scales could provoke an explosion which might consume the three kingdoms.”
Frances’ inner natural philosopher noted that the human jaw did, indeed, drop when confronted with a statement impossible to comprehend. Lady Anthea, it seemed, found the spectacle fascinating. It was some moments before Frances regained control of her tongue.
“You think I — that we — that the Crown Prince — that were I to be with child, it would be the Crown Prince gossip would name as the father?”
With ineffable elegance, Lady Anthea shrugged. “Over recent days at least three personages of the Court have confided that information to me: not as gossip but as Divine truth. I am not precisely sure whether the Holy Wisdom has it that your so-called retirement to the country is because you wish to conceal your condition as long as possible, you are prostrate from an induced miscarriage or because Princess Charis has had you secretly garrotted. Accounts differ.”
Frances set her teeth. “I am not with child. Were I to be so, it would be an event unprecedented since the Archangel Gabriel visited Nazareth. Furthermore, whatever the Court gossips may insinuate, I am on the best of terms with the Crown Princess.”
She hesitated, but only for a moment. This was not a time for reticence. “She was, in truth, the friend who sent me in your direction. If you are as well-informed as I believe you are, you will know Charis is on the road to Castle Cavron. She may already have arrived. She is certainly beyond the King’s order of recall, if she even acknowledged such a thing.”
She fancied Lady Anthea’s eyes flickered.
“So, your need of advice?”
“The Crown Prince has not wronged me, nor is the situation anything at all like whatever the Court speculates about.” With momentary bitterness, Frances added, “It would be delightful if things were that simple.”
Unexpectedly, she saw Lady Anthea’s lips curl with amusement.
“So I have frequently thought in my dealings with this family. Pray proceed.”
Frances brushed her hand down her face. The gesture opened the sluice gates; she could talk at last.
“There is indeed a wronged woman — a girl, in truth. Not wronged in the conventional sense but the Crown Prince and I have done her wrong, nevertheless, though it was never my intention to do so. Indeed, she may have no notion as yet that she is wronged at all.”
“The situation, then, is singular indeed. Might I know more of the young lady in question?”
“She is John Watson’s niece. The Crown Prince was convinced that she was the target of foreign spies. He engaged me to counterfeit a correspondence with her, as if I and he — collectively — were her uncle. He told me what to say, to draw her out, expecting all the time the correspondence would be read, and he told me the stratagem was working, that certain devices of the Pretender of Gondal had already fallen awry because of the misinformation we were sending, but now he is gone, and a letter from her has just come to hand, written most plainly in distress of mind, and now I see, as I did not before, that we have put her in the gravest danger. And there is no help for it. He is gone, and I dare not trust the mails. I have to go myself to Gondal and sort things out. But I am terrified, and besides, I do not know the way.”
If Lady Anthea was disconcerted, she did not show it. She linked arms with Frances.
“To be here so early, you must have left the country before sun up. I suspect, too, you may not have eaten. Come with me, and let me introduce me to some friends of mine, who do not move in Court circles but who keep their ears to the ground, nonetheless. To the extent my advice is worth having, it may be because I have them as a sounding board when perplexed. And they are not without experience in transferring young women about the three kingdoms. If the Crown Princess is indeed now in Castle Cavron, she owes her safe arrival to the friends in question.”
The relief of having an older, more experienced friend to guide her was dizzying. Frances went wherever Lady Anthea led her, not questioning their direction.
The departure of the two young men from Rosings threw Lady Catherine back on her own resources. These being scanty, the Hunsford party was more than ever in demand to remedy the lack. Even the superlative dullness of the evening parties at Rosings proved a kind of relief to Elizabeth; her reflections when left to herself were of a most agitating and depressing kind. She almost dreaded her reunion with Jane, burdened as she was with so much she would have to conceal and so much that would surprise and distress her.
However, after four days it appeared even this slight relief would be lost to her. With a mixture of chagrin and perverse pride Mr Collins returned from Rosings to say that Lady Catherine’s ward, Miss Molly Hooper, was due on the morrow.
“The fatigues of Court — of doing the honours as the ranking lady of Gondal — have left her quite done up. Lady Catherine made it clear that her ward will require the most absolute rest and quiet. We will, I fear, not even see the Rosings party at church during Miss Hooper’s stay. The chapel at Rosings has been turned out and new-furbished and the family will hear Mass there.”
Elizabeth turned her head, to catch an expression of such exquisite relief on Charlotte’s face that her initial disappointment was swallowed up in guilt.
“Well,” she said lightly, “they must be the losers. We shall not suffer by it. Charlotte: we have talked from time to time about taking a truly long walk around the district so you can show me your favourite places but with our engagements at Rosings it has been hard to find the time. Perhaps we should do so tomorrow.”
“The very thing! Perhaps we may reach Paulson’s Hill; the view from there is justly celebrated.” Charlotte turned to her husband. “My dear, you know so much about the district, will you be able to accompany us?”
Elizabeth ducked her head, to hide her consternation, but she had misjudged her friend. Mr Collins puffed himself up.
“Thank you, my dear, but I dare not stray so far from home. Lady Catherine de Bourgh may not wish to receive us socially during her niece’s visit, but this does not detract from my duties. If she needs me to explain a point from her library, or to extract portions of some of the more esoteric books into a form which may be palatable to their ladyships, I need to be on hand to resolve those concerns.”
“How foolish of me. Of course your importance to the Rosings’ household precludes your absence. There may be new works that Miss Hooper will expect to have ordered for her perusal, or material she has brought from the city which has to be catalogued. I quite see that you have to be on hand. But as to me and Elizabeth —?”
Mr Collins, having established the point of his indispensability, was disposed to be magnanimous.
“Of course, my dear. Nothing could be more healthful than a long walk. Make sure that you wear hats against the sun, and I recommend that you set out early in the morning, so as to have the benefit of the cool of the day.”
His directions to them as to the route they should take, the persons to whom they must give greetings, guidance as to which cottages might be relied on to offer them milk or water to quench their thirsts and which wells or springs they must on no account drink from occupied the remainder of the evening.
They were, indeed, away in the dawn, walking through the quiet, dew-soaked lanes and talking as if nothing — neither Charlotte’s marriage, nor Mr Darcy’s unexpected proposal (which she still kept from her friend) — had ever come between them.
So absorbing was their conversation, that it seemed no time at all before they had walked quite out of Elizabeth’s knowledge. Even Charlotte was looking around with anxiety, relieved only when she caught sight of a church tower in the distance, plainly a landmark for which she had been searching.
“There! If you feel equal to the attempt, Paulson’s Hill lies a little beyond that church.”
That proved more optimistic than warranted; the church itself was a good half-league away, and they did not begin the ascent of the celebrated hill for another half turn after that. The lower slopes of Paulson’s Hill were thickly wooded: their path to the summit wound through the most delicious shade, so that when they finally emerged amid the crags and scorched, sparse vegetation of the hill top the brilliant noon light dazzled them. And then —
Below Elizabeth unrolled fold upon fold of lesser hills, carpeted with trees: a swathe of green baize lying, carelessly opulent, across the landscape. Eventually, when the green ran out, came a hazy, infinite azure expanse, stretching to the horizon.
For the first time in her life, Elizabeth knew she was seeing the sea.
Charlotte’s face was equally enraptured, though with a tinge of melancholy which reminded Elizabeth of angels in paintings of the Last Judgment.
“When I first came to Hunsford, I knew we would be close to the sea and hoped to see it for myself. It is not much more than half a day’s journey from here to Elbe, given the quality of the roads. But I do not know when William will ever bear to be away from Rosings for long enough for us to make the attempt.”
The wistfulness in her friend’s voice tore at Elizabeth’s heart.
“Perhaps,” she essayed, “something could be contrived when Lady Catherine goes to Court? Perhaps when Miss Hooper returns to Gondal Town, her aunt will return with her?”
Her friend did not answer; instead, she turned once more to stand, lost in thought, contemplating that sublime vista. It was some time before Elizabeth plucked up courage to touch her on the arm.
“I do not wish to leave this place, but we should be returning. It is quite some distance to Hunsford, and I should not like to cause anxiety to my cousin. Besides, the sun is so very strong. We should retreat into the shade.”
Charlotte assented, but Elizabeth could not help feeling that there was a certain constraint as they descended the hill.
Despite a lift offered and gratefully accepted from a buffalo cart slowly wending its way along the dry dust road with a load of early cherries and cucumbers, the sun was declining and they were worn out by the time they stumbled into the Collins’ house.
If Elizabeth had cherished dreams of wrapping her aching feet in wet towels, and then taking her strained body to an early bed, they were forestalled. Mr Collins met them on the threshold, waving a note about his head and babbling so that it was almost impossible to take his meaning and, when she did, Elizabeth was taken aback to such a degree that she could not but speak her doubts aloud.
“Miss Hooper wishes to see me?”
Her voice came out in a squeak.
Since Elizabeth’s arrival at Hunsford, Lady Catherine had repeatedly spoken of her niece Molly as Mr Darcy’s destined wife, albeit not in the presence of the man in question. The scene which had so recently taken place in Charlotte’s parlour had shown Elizabeth Mr Darcy did not see himself as bound to his engagement to his cousin. Nevertheless, she had yet to know the lady’s views on the matter. Miss Hooper might not have the power to compel Mr Darcy’s affections, nor, evidently, did his family’s expectations preclude him from thinking of another wife. Nevertheless, had any whisper of recent events reached Miss Hooper, Elizabeth was in no doubt that the King’s sister could make life more than unpleasant for a woman who had had the temerity to attract the man she expected to marry her.
Mr Collins positively glowed. “Indeed, my dear cousin. Invited to drink coffee at Rosings with the sister to the King himself. I can see how you must be overcome by the honour.” He turned to his wife. “Indeed, this is a compliment to you also, my dear. Lady Catherine has always had the nicest judgment of propriety. Many times, she tells me, she has declined to have a young lady introduced to her niece, because of some scruple as to the character of the young lady’s chaperone.”
From hints Mama had dropped, Elizabeth thought such a system must have left Miss Hooper singularly ill-prepared for life at Court. She concealed her thoughts, however, and at length was permitted to retire to bed.
Next morning saw her changing into her finest morning dress, a procedure which was complicated by her cousin’s insistent urgings from the landing that she hurry herself, lest she make the party late, and that she omit not an iota of care in her preparation, lest the lack of attention to appearance be interpreted as a slur on the royal guest at Rosings. After one final struggle to dissuade Mr Collins from having the gardener’s boy accompany them in the character of a page, she and Charlotte were permitted to set off across Rosings Park, now adorned in all the finery which spring could lend it.
A second morning of being alone with her friend revived her spirits. Charlotte, too, had a pinkness in her cheeks which warmed Elizabeth’s heart. Preoccupied with her own affairs, she had neglected her friend and hostess.
Charlotte smiled at her. “Lizzie, I have a confession to make. I suspect this invitation stems less from the personal qualities of either of us, than from an accident of geography.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, inviting more.
“Did you not know? Miss Hooper — do you not think it is strange that my father, who is but a country gentleman of small estate, should be ‘Sir William Lucas’ but the King’s own sister is plain ‘Miss Hooper’?”
Marriage, it seemed, had not changed Charlotte’s predilection to digress when nervous.
“Charlotte! The point?”
“Um. Well. Miss Hooper’s late father, Sir Vernon Hooper, used to be a neighbour of our families in Meryton. Indeed, it was his father who built Netherfield. Miss Hooper was born there.”
“Born at Netherfield? Why did you never say anything of this?”
Charlotte cast her eyes down at the grassy path. “Lizzie, promise never to breathe a word of this? At home, I mean. Either of our homes.”
Friendly ease enveloped her, like a winter cloak on a frosty night. “Not a syllable.”
“Well. The first evening we dined at Netherfield, Lady Catherine chanced to mention her niece, then away at Court —”
“I’ll wager she did.”
Charlotte could not quite conceal a smile. “In any event, as we walked home across the park I ventured to observe to William the curious circumstance that I and Miss Hooper must have been neighbours, years ago, when we were both children. But he seemed so offended at the very thought — certain that I must be mistaken, that I must have confused some other Miss Hooper with Lady Catherine’s royal ward, persuaded that breathing any hint of my surmise in the hearing of his patron would be the ruin of us both — that I have not mentioned it since and William, I am sure, has forgotten all about it. But Lady Catherine has always made it clear I should not expect to be honoured with an introduction to her niece, when she visits her guardian. This invitation must have come from Miss Hooper herself and why would she have cause to know anything of either of us if she were not Miss Hooper of Netherfield?”
“Why indeed?” Elizabeth echoed, while cold claws of apprehension reached up and squeezed once more at her entrails.
Contrary to normal custom, once they arrived at Rosings they were not shown into any of the great rooms of state. Rather, a footman escorted them through a series of winding passages to a part of the house Elizabeth had not entered before; a kind of glassed-in gallery built out on the south side of the building, with floor-to ceiling windows on three sides, a herringbone brick floor, and a fine array of miniature citrus trees in pots around the whole space. Despite the warmth of the spring day, fires burned in fireplaces at either end of the gallery. In the very centre, a small figure lay on a light wood sofa, swathed in bright shawls.
The figure raised a hand. “Please, forgive my not rising. I foolishly allowed myself to take cold on the road, and find myself absurdly feeble this morning. Thank you so much for coming to cheer me.”
Elizabeth and Charlotte sank into their deepest and most formal curtseys.
“Please, do rise. And do be seated — oh, no-one’s put out anything for you to sit on. Please, could one of you —” (this was addressed to the attendant footmen) “— find chairs for Mrs Collins and Miss Duplessis. Quickly, now!”
The footmen responded instantly, but with a palpable air of discombobulation. Elizabeth suspected neither Lady Catherine nor her domestic staff had expected the visitors to be invited to sit in Miss Hooper’s presence. Furthermore, when the majestic silver coffee urn was wheeled in, surrounded by filigree baskets full of loukum and candied fruits, little pastries and spiced, stuffed dates, Miss Hooper smiled at the servants and told them they need not stay.
“Though I shall have to entreat you, Mrs Collins, to do the honours of the coffee pot. My hand shakes so, I dare not risk spilling coffee on your gowns. Coffee stains are of all things the hardest to remove.”
Charlotte appeared so overcome by the possibility that the King’s sister could even have thought of pouring coffee for her that the truth of this proposition was almost proved by actual experiment. Quietly, Elizabeth put out a hand and gave the wobbling silver spout a surer direction.
“Thank you.” There was a glint of amusement in Miss Hooper’s eye as she received the fine porcelain cup. It gave Elizabeth enough courage to look properly at the other woman for the first time.
Lady Catherine had always spoke of her niece as “delicate”, which Elizabeth had mentally translated to “spoilt, sickly and cross.” Now she saw Miss Hooper in the flesh, she repented her hasty judgment. Miss Hooper’s pallor, the lines around her mouth, the violet hemispheres beneath her eyes and her thinness of face bespoke either intolerable stress or chronic pain. Attributing her current collapse to a cold caught on the road must be for mere form’s sake. The signs of persistent invalidism were too well-marked to be of recent occurrence. If only Elizabeth might summon Uncle John on the spot to make a proper diagnosis.
Despite that, Miss Hooper possessed very regular, very pretty features, and a great quantity of soft brown hair, united with great sweetness of manner. Taking those into consideration, along with her great connections, it must be a matter of wonder that she could be on the brink of her twenty-ninth year and still lack a husband. Perhaps the greatness of her connections scared all suitors away.
“Might I offer you one of these?” Miss Hooper held out a dish of small, gilded biscuits. “They are Mrs Jenkyns’ celebrated chestnut fancies. She made them specially when she heard I was coming. She will be distraught if she spots any have not been eaten when the servants clear things away. When I first came here, when I was no more than ten years old, she happened across me hiding in one of her pantries. I was shy and homesick, and could not face any more of Aunt Catherine’s great visitors. Mrs Jenkyns took me down to the kitchens, gave me sugar plums, and asked me about my old home. I told her about Netherfield Park, and the great avenue of sweet chestnuts which line the ride down to the lake there. I told her how we used to gather those nuts, and grind them for flour. That night and for weeks afterwards, she sent a plate of these biscuits to my nursery, with my hot milk, so I could have a little of home to remember.”
“The Netherfield chestnuts remain fine, ma’am,” Elizabeth said. “They were putting on their spring growth when I left Meryton. But the current tenants did not come into residence until after All Souls’ Eve, and by then all the nuts had fallen. I do not know if anyone gathered them last year, or if they were left for the wild pigs.”
“The new tenants will have been the Bingleys? I met them at my cousin’s house in Gondal Town this winter. Both my cousin and Mr Bingley spoke most highly of the care your family took of his party after that shocking carriage accident. Something really needs to be done about that curve of the main road. Especially when the autumn rains undercut the bank, it is truly dangerous. There was an appalling accident there with a dray, when I was no more than seven. I still dream of it, sometimes.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Indeed, ma’am. But what is to be done? The road forms the boundary between the Longs’ estate and the Gouldings’ and neither of them will give up an iota of land to straighten it.”
Charlotte leant forwards. “Perhaps, ma’am, you might appeal to your brother?”
Miss Hooper’s open, friendly countenance clouded. “To do what? To order the Gouldings and Lacys to surrender their land for the common good?”
“Is that not the King’s charge? The common good, I mean?” As Elizabeth spoke, some of the things Papa had said to her in the library came back to her and she wished the words unuttered. Miss Hooper, though, put her head on one side, as if giving the matter all due consideration.
“It would not answer. Their ancestors fought for their King, when Gaaldine invaded a century ago. If the King of Gondal were now to take that land, even if it were just one sod, it might lead them to wonder what, after all, they had fought for. And if, should the same circumstances come again, they should make the same choices. At least, so the late Queen told me, when I asked her a similar question, long ago.”
Somehow, Elizabeth sensed there was more that Miss Hooper could say, if she would.
“And so the King would not do it if you asked him to?”
“I did not say that. Yes, it is the kind of thing he might do, for me. But I would not ask it. Tell me, Miss Duplessis, I understand there has been a regiment quartered on Meryton these five months. How has the town coped?”
The change of subject did not have the effect Miss Hooper had no doubt hoped. The kind of thing: did that suggest that there were other kinds of thing about which her brother was not minded to be accommodating? Her mention of attending events at Mr Darcy’s house had been cool and cousinly, with nothing about it to suggest more than family affection subsisted between them. Perhaps, though, she had set her hopes on another, and been told — whether by aunt, brother or both — that it must not be. A romantic disappointment might also account for the collapse in Miss Hooper’s health. Elizabeth had not the medical skills of her uncle or even of her mother, but certainly it seemed probable that there was a strong nervous element to her condition.
Miss Hooper was looking at her, a question in her eyes. In order to distract her, Elizabeth launched into an account of the regimental ball Colonel Forster had given in honour of his new bride. For once, the follies and absurdities she described owed nothing to Lydia or Kitty, but to the near-miraculous elevation of one Mary King.
Mary King had been a shy, be-befreckled presence on the edge of Meryton events for all of Elizabeth’s life. Her father had owned a ropewalk, and on his death (an event which occurred when Miss King was no more than three years old) his widow, disregarding the advice of her man of business and the opinion of the district, assumed management of the ropewalk on her own account. Further, she had sunk her jointure into building new sheds on the most modern principles: doubling the quantities of hands, and bringing in experts from Venice and the Low Countries to coach them in the newest principles of the craft. So successful had this strategy proved, Mrs King’s small local business had in short order become a most prosperous and renowned manufactory.
The district was too small to be exclusive. A father in trade would not have been a great handicap to Miss King’s social success. A mother engaged likewise was an eccentricity too great to be borne. Save with a handful of families of the second rank, she and her mother did not dine out and Elizabeth knew Miss King principally from the public balls of Meryton and her Aunt Phillips’s larger and less select gatherings.
All that, though, had changed in the course of the winter. Mauro di Sidonia, chief ropemaker to the Royal Dockyards, had arrived in state to consider whether Mrs King’s ropewalks might be entrusted with the sub-contract manufacture of some of the finer grades of cordage required aboard His Majesty’s ships.
Having devoted his life to rising in his trade, he had now achieved the pinnacle of his ambition and found, like many before him, such elevation was a cold and lonely place. Mrs King, uniting a knowledge of the ropemaker’s mysteries and a warm, confiding personality, would have been precisely the woman to win his heart, even leaving aside her handsome house and prospering business. Mrs King, too, was far from unwilling to make a second matrimonial experiment, once she had ascertained that Milord di Sidonia cherished no unreasonable expectations that his wife would withdraw into idle gentility once the ring reached her finger.
The news that Mrs King had become Milady di Sidonia had broken over the district with the shock of a tidal wave. Every local family district had fallen over themselves to pay off two decades’ arrears of hospitality. Appearing at the last Meryton ball of the winter on the arm of her new stepfather, Mary King had found herself for the first time besieged with suitors, and her pleasure in dispensing alternate smiles and snubs had been transparent.
It was a good story and Elizabeth told it well; both Charlotte and Miss Hooper laughed out loud, several times. There was no reason to mention that Mr Wickham had been foremost among the aspirants to Mary King’s favours, and received a more than generous proportion of her attention in response. That was a private hurt: perhaps to be shared with Jane (though better not; it would be too reminiscent of her own woes) or with Aunt Gardiner, but with no-one else.
More than once, though, she caught Miss Hooper’s eye on her, with something unreadable in her expression. It intrigued her, so that on Lady Catherine’s bustling into the orangery to tell them that her niece was well overdue for a rest, and they must leave at once, Elizabeth was most pleased to hear Miss Hooper request that they both attend on her at the same time the next morning. They accepted with the most cheerful alacrity.