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

“Your friend Miss Lucas is a martyr indeed.” The corners of Wickham’s mouth turned upwards in a deliciously wicked smile as he watched the dance floor from the nook he had found for the two of them alone. “Your cousin, whatever his other qualities, never received the blessing of Terpsichore on his cradle.”

Elizabeth giggled. “I believe he would have refused it on principle. He would have you know he is a deeply religious man, sir, and scorns anything with the taint of the heathen. Imprimis: my sister’s hair. He complimented her manner of dressing it at dinner (and a very awkward business he made of it, almost as awkward as he made of carving the ham) but on her mentioning it was styled à la Athéne he threw up his hands in horror and spent the whole next course imploring her to change it, rather than refer even obliquely to a pagan goddess. I do not know whether he would have taken it any better had I enlightened him that it was, in point of fact, an allusion to the French King’s mistress, but my father chanced to tread on my foot so I lost the opportunity.”

Wickham’s eyes passed restlessly over the dance-floor, as if looking for someone. “Your cousin’s patroness is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is she not?”

“Sir, I cannot conceive how you could know, my cousin being so circumspect in referring to her.”

“Indeed, he could do well to be more so, as things are.”

She raised her eyebrows in what she hoped was a provocative manner. “Surely, even if she is such a great lady, she cannot have ears in a town so small and remote from Court as this.”

A flicker of emotion crossed Wickham’s face, too quick for Elizabeth to interpret.

“It seems unlikely. Nonetheless, you underestimate what a very great lady she is. She is sister to the current Earl of Ula. Her youngest sister, Elaine, married Crown Prince Gerald.” He added, very deliberately, “You may also not be aware that the middle sister, Lady Anne, married a gentleman of considerable estate in the North of Gondal. That estate was Pemberley, and the gentleman the elder Mr Darcy. Lady Catherine, therefore, is aunt both to the present Mr Darcy and to our newly crowned King.”

“Goodness!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I had not an idea of it. Imagine a King having an aunt, like ordinary mortals. Do you suppose she sends him pages of good advice on the merits of wintergreen ointment and earnest instructions as to the care of his undergarments?”

She feared this levity might not have concealed her very real shock. Nonetheless, Wickham took the bait.

“Is that what your own aunts do?”

She smiled, and hoped it did not look like relief. “My aunt Gardiner — really, she is my mother’s cousin, but bears the title ‘aunt’ as a courtesy — sends welcome intelligence as to the latest fashions in the capital, and even more welcome advice as to how the effects may be contrived if one does not have an army of seamstresses at one’s disposal. My father’s sister, Aunt Phillips, we see almost daily, so she does not need to write. Though I do not doubt the tenor of her messages, if she did.”

“And your uncles? Does they write?”

The ballroom felt suddenly oppressive: heavy with uneasy memories.

A year ago the news of the Crown Princess’s marriage to Gaaldine’s heir had first reached Meryton via the blacksmith. Scarcely had that sensation sunk in when a Master Richardson, newly appointed Physician-in-Chief to the Crown, arrived at Longbourn bearing a short and unforthcoming letter from Uncle John, in which he explained that his duty to the Crown meant he needs must absent himself from Gondal for an unspecified time.

Mama’s cross-examination of Master Richardson produced the further information that Uncle John had accompanied the Crown Princess on her wedding journey. At which point, completely out of the blue, Papa had flown into what in anyone less phlegmatic would have been a towering passion. In Papa’s case it entailed tight, withdrawn silences, punctuated with bitter philippics about No daughter of his and Had the King’s advisors lost their collective wits? Which Mama, either from mischief or from maladroitness, countered by observing that, given the pool of suitors even for the Crown Princess had proved self-evidently shallow and foetid, parents of daughters of lesser degree had all the more duty to exert themselves on the matter, and perhaps now he might consider the merits of their going up to Gondal Town for a sojourn?

It had not been the easiest of seasons at Longbourn.

Elizabeth rose to her feet, holding herself as straight as if her dancing master’s eye were upon her. “Forgive me, sir, but the dance is over and I see Miss Lucas imploring me to join her, though whether she seeks balm for her feet or her spirit, I cannot discern at this distance. I must take my leave for the moment.”

She dropped a quick curtsey and turned away before Wickham could forestall her. Charlotte gave her a quick, encouraging wave and she began to cross the dance floor in her direction.

“Miss Elizabeth. Would you — might I have the honour of the next dance?”

For a moment she thought her own preoccupations had summoned him up, but no, Mr Darcy of Pemberley (Mr Darcy the cousin of the King) was standing in front of her, faultlessly dressed, and — her brain caught up with her — asking her to dance.

For a moment she paused. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the ponderous form of her cousin Collins making his determined way in her direction. It decided her. She dropped a quick, assenting curtsey.

“So, Lizzie, tell. How did it feel to dance with the great Mr Darcy, who, it seems, is so very close to the Crown?”

“It felt like dancing,” Elizabeth said, shortly. Lydia’s transports, after a night which had promised so much and in the end delivered very little, that little tainted, were altogether too much, especially to irritable spirits and a sluggish head.

“No, but really. What did you talk about?”

“We tried not to talk about what undignified asses you and Kitty were making of yourselves with the junior officers. That is, Mr Darcy tried not to talk about it and I was forced to be humiliatingly grateful for his forbearance.”

“We weren’t — we weren’t at all — that is, they all thought we were amusing, and anyway if you want to point at one of your sisters for making an ass of herself, how about Mary? Everyone knows she can’t carry a tune. I can’t think why Mama and Papa didn’t stop her singing.”

“Papa tried.”

“Yes, and look how that turned out! You should have heard what Denny said about it.”

“Consider me delighted that I didn’t. I did hear Ensign Denny exercise his so-called wit on our cousin’s introducing himself to Mr Darcy and talking endlessly about my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And also Mama’s boasts to Lady Lucas about ‘Dear Mr Bingley, what a pleasure it will be to welcome him as a son.’ Holy Mother, did my entire family have a sweepstake on how badly each of them could behave last night? What must the district have thought of us?”

“It’s our district. They all know us,” Lydia observed tranquilly.

“Quite,” her sister agreed, with feeling.

“Anyway, things cannot be too bad. Jane has had a letter from Netherfield. I saw the groom deliver it, and then she ran up to her room with it. Perhaps Mr Bingley has proposed already. And I shall be a bridesmaid at the wedding.”

Something stirred queasily in Elizabeth’s guts. A letter from Netherfield could hardly have taken more than minutes to read and she had heard the stable clock strike three quarters while she had been slumped on this bench in the walled garden, drowning beneath Lydia’s mindless prattle. From their cradles, she and Jane had always shared. A piece of news so great and she would have been told it already.

“Stay here,” she commanded. “And, for Heaven’s sake, stay quiet!”

The door to their shared chamber was closed. That, Elizabeth had expected. She laid her ear very close to the wood above the handle. The sounds she heard, faint as they were, precipitated her entrance into the room.

Jane lay prone across the bed, a piece of crumpled paper in her hand. As her sister entered she turned onto her back. Her tear-flecked face had set into lines of acute misery.

“They are leaving. They will have gone already. The whole Netherfield party has returned to Gondal Town. Caroline writes that they do not expect to return again until the spring. Perhaps never. He’s gone, Lizzie. Gone forever.”

Elizabeth ran forward to catch her sister in her arms. The storm of tears overwhelmed them both.

“Miss Elizabeth, my thanks for receiving me. You will, of course, have noted the very cold way in which Mr Darcy deigned to acknowledge me when we met in Meryton the other day. I thought you deserved an explanation. It is a painful subject, but since Mr Darcy must have given you his own views on our relationship while you were dancing, for my own credit I must endeavour to set the record straight.”

Elizabeth suppressed a sigh. Since achieving the distinction of being the only woman Mr Darcy had danced with at the Meryton Ball, Elizabeth had found herself on the wrong end of constant demands to know what she and the King’s own cousin could possibly have discussed. She had found by experiment that informing people Mr Darcy had only uttered the commonplaces expected of a dancing partner merely produced accusations of dissembling. She had been driven to contemplate extremes: telling her interlocutors that he had proclaimed himself the Angel of Revelation, that he had been summoned back to Gondal Town for a council of war, that Netherfield would play host to the King himself in the springtime.

There was no hope of rescue. She and Wickham were alone in the drawing room at Longbourn. The offended Mr Collins (what could the man have been thinking, to propose marriage on less than three days acquaintance?) had bustled off with the thinnest of possible excuses about seeing Miss Lucas had taken no chill at the ball. After that scene in the drawing-room, Mama was prostrate in her bedchamber, decanter to hand. Papa had retreated to his study. Jane was at church. Her other sisters had decided to walk over to Aunt Phillips, doubtless to transmit the gossip while it was still fresh.

She surrendered to the inevitable. “Please feel free to speak, sir. You may be confident in my discretion.”

Wickham settled himself on the sopha, in an attitude nicely judged between supplication and weariness.

“My father, like your Uncle Phillips, began as a country attorney. In my father’s case this was in Lambton, a market town in the north. There he came to the favourable notice of Mr Darcy’s father, who in due course appointed him to be steward of Pemberley. I was born in the steward’s house on the Pemberley estate and the present Mr Darcy and I grew up as boys together. Old Mr Darcy treated me as another son; he could not have been more generous.

“Old Mr Darcy was the best of men; it pains me to see what his son has done with that name. It also pains me that I — But perhaps I bore you.”

“Not at all,” Elizabeth said, though in truth a certain moth-wing of stop beating about the bush and come to the point did flutter against her overstretched nerves.

Wickham drew a deep breath. “On the older Mr Darcy’s death, which occurred when I was still at the University in Zalona, I was bequeathed from his estate an annuity of 600 thaler per annum for my lifetime, enough to sustain me while I established myself in the law. I was to be granted it on achieving my majority, then some months off. However, when that event arrived, I wrote to Mr Darcy as a matter of form, asking for clarification of certain particulars concerning my inheritance and found myself bidden to a meeting of state, with Mr Darcy and his man of business. There, I found myself lectured and upbraided, my ambitions set at naught, every instance of youthful imprudence flung into my face, and — to cut a very long story short — forced to compromise my expectations for a lump sum, very much short of their true value.”

“But surely,” Elizabeth exclaimed, “the law could not allow such a travesty?”

Wickham smiled, as one who had been out in the world and knew its ways.

“The law? Madam, the law is administered by the King’s justices and his late Grace —” He left the sentence delicately hanging, but Elizabeth completed it.

“—was Mr Darcy’s connexion. Oh, how odious the man is! And how unfair that the King’s kin should be favoured in such a way and the King’s justice so subverted.”

“The King’s justice? Perhaps you sense justice would be better served had we a Queen on the throne?”

Elizabeth’s brow creased in puzzlement. “Had Queen Felicia sought the throne in her own right, a generation ago, you mean?”

“In part, perhaps. But it was the Crown Princess I had in mind. I think of her often; more since I came to Meryton. Did you know, in some lights you almost have a look of her? Though she was but a child when I saw her last, she, too, showed promise of having uncommonly fine eyes.”

This gallantry rendered her, for the moment, speechless. Wickham’s own melting brown eyes were fixed on her face, almost as if he might be on the point of declaring himself.

No, Elizabeth admonished herself with angry pride. Almost as if he would have liked to declare himself, had he had a competence of 600 thalers per annum and the legal connection such security would have allowed him to build up. Mr Darcy had rendered that impossible. As, of course, did her own lack of dowry. In this matter, there were faults on both sides.

That recollection did her good. It allowed her to say, with tolerable composure, “I had not thought you would have met the Princess.”

Wickham waved an explanatory hand.

“While Mr Darcy’s father lived, the Princess would often visit Pemberley with her father. As a child she was open-hearted and amiable, notwithstanding her rank, and uncommonly fond of me. You cannot imagine the dismay I felt on hearing of her marriage to the Dark Prince of Gaaldine. If rumour speaks true, King Mycroft has long used his influence to soften and conceal the vices of his brother. Who knows what such a one reveals in the seclusion of the marital chamber? It would ease my heart if there were a way to let her know her friends in Gondal keep her in their thoughts and prayers. It is what the elder Mr Darcy would have expected. That portion of his legacy his son will not deny me.”

The fingertips of Elizabeth’s left hand reached out to caress the mourning knot on her right sleeve, its silky smoothness recalling the last time they had donned mourning for a Royal death.

A footman springs forward to open the carriage door. Uncle John descends. His face is grey and drawn, worse even than after Vannstown. As he limps towards the family drawn up to greet him, it is as if he neither knows nor cares whether he is dead or alive.

Mama stifles a sob. Quite overset, her words tumble out at random. She urges everyone to come inside to take refreshment, calls for servants to bring towels and hot water so her brother may wash off the dust of the road, asks him not to mind any of them, but to go straight to his chamber and rest, then tells him to take a glass of brandy for his health’s sake.

Papa’s lip curls. He tries to catch Elizabeth’s eye. For once, she pretends not to see. She is learning not even adults are proof against loss and sorrow. The knowledge terrifies her. The air is choked with tension, as on the eve of a thunderstorm.

As soon as she can, she retreats to her secret place in the grounds. It needs agility to climb into the fork of the lightning-struck tree, but once up there a small person can tuck herself away, secure and hidden.

The late afternoon heat drugs her senses. She forgets, almost, what has brought her here, until she hears her father’s voice below, mere yards away.

“So, our last frail hope is gone. Prince Gerald’s line will triumph and Gondal go down into the dark.”

Her uncle’s voice has an edge to it. “Prince Gerald’s line, yes. But it need not be through Prince James. The King is hale. He may yet remarry and father a son.”

Papa makes an indescribably vulgar noise. “John, I am not Harriet. Do me the credit of assuming my wits are not drowned deeper than lost Atlantis.”

“A different man would demand a meeting for that.” The quiet chill in Uncle John’s voice sends shivers down Elizabeth’s spine.

“In fellowship to a brother, consider the words unuttered.” Papa’s voice hardens. “But not unthought. Brotherhood only goes so far.”

Her uncle sighs. “I, of all men, know how little a man’s thoughts may bear close scrutiny. Let it pass. But we are not without hope. The Palace still holds a child of the senior Moriarty line. Given time, the King may yet be persuaded to name the Princess his heir.”

“You dream, John. We learned our lesson last time, as did the King. Were he to live thirty years more — forty, even — he dare not take such a risk with the realm. The country will never unite behind a woman.”

“As the father of daughters, you should not dismiss the Princess so easily.”

Her father exhales, so close below Elizabeth’s perch that she can fancy the warmth of his breath touching her skin.

“God knows, I love my daughters. Yet there are days when I can hardly bear to look at them. After my death all I have built here falls into the hands of a pedantic, toadying nincompoop. And why? Because I have no son. And if I feel so, for my poor estate, how much more the King, when the realm itself is at stake, and the heir is — what he is? Who was it who wrote ‘A man writes his history through his sons: the best he can hope through his daughters is to become a footnote?’”

Elizabeth suppresses a gasp. Her leg has gone to sleep, but she dare not shift her position. To be detected now would be intolerable.

Her uncle sounds impatient. “He was a fool, whoever he was. You aspire to be a scholar, Clarence. Tell me, how often has it been the footnotes which have taken you off down a sparkling new line of enquiry?” His voice changes: it seems he has reached a decision. “Forgive me. You and Harriet have offered me a refuge, but I find myself unable to accept it. I did not run from Vannstown, and I cannot — after all — run from this. If the King will accept the renewal of my service, then I owe it to him and to the Princess, until my death. I shall return to Court tomorrow.”

Uncle John never came back to Longbourn. Mama took the news of his return to Court so badly, with tears, recriminations and thrown objects, that even his letters had dwindled to matters of form: at Christmas, Easter and on each of their birthdays.

Elizabeth chewed at her lower lip. Nothing could be more disinterested than Wickham’s concern for the Princess, or more flattering than his assumption that she might be in a position to assist him. Nor was the thing wholly impossible. Form letters they might be, but her uncle had written them and seen them delivered, even from Gaaldine. Replies might be managed, somehow.

Would it be prudent, though? One did not have to pay too much attention to the wilder stories circulating about the new King to hesitate to enter into a correspondence with someone deep in Gaaldine court circles, even a close blood relative.

To conceal her expression, she looked down at the floor. The polished wood was as familiar as her own skin. There was the never-smoothed dent where Kitty had managed to overset a stone urn and nearly crushed her foot in the process. That darker patch was from an unsuccessful experiment in walnut-oil polish. The Duplessis family had mapped its history onto the house, yet when Papa died, she and her sisters would no longer have any right to enter it. Footnotes, indeed. Had the Crown Princess taken her last look at the Palace in Gondal Town in a similar spirit?

“Forgive me, madam; my duties call me away.” Wickham must have caught the little bustle at the front door which signalled one or more of the other residents of Longbourn returning to disturb their tête-à-tête. “But do me the favour of thinking more on this matter. It would mean a very great deal to me could something be contrived.”

They rose. He bowed over her hand, and whisked himself away through the garden doors which, on this fine bright winter’s day, stood open. Scarcely half a minute passed before the butler flung wide the drawing room door.

“Miss Lucas is here, Miss Elizabeth,” he announced.

Pleasure rushed through her. Charlotte: the very person with whom to discuss her present dilemma. Jane would be all on the side of writing, from sympathy for the Princess, love for Uncle John and a settled belief that whatever people might hint about King James, he must at bottom have sufficient family feeling and goodness of heart to appreciate any attempt to cheer his kinswoman in her foreign exile. Elizabeth could open the matter fully to her friend and count on her good sense and judgement.

Provided, of course, they could do so in private.

“Did my cousin not accompany you from Meryton?” she enquired.

Charlotte flushed: an ugly, blotchy affair.

“No.” Her voice was low and breathless, as if she had been running. “He offered, but I wished to be able to tell you our news myself.”

” ‘Our’ news?” Black clouds of suspicion rose in her mind, but Elizabeth would not name them, would not give them power over her, not until she had to. Her uncle was a veteran of Vannstown; resistance in the teeth of the inevitable was her heritage.

“Yes.” Charlotte was looking anywhere but at her. “Mr Collins has made me an offer of marriage, and I have accepted him.”

It would not do. All the last week’s fears, frustrations and humiliations came to a head at once.

“Marry Mr Collins? My dear Charlotte, impossible!”