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

A regiment in Meryton: the town had not known such excitement during all the time Harriet had lived at Longbourn. The girls were wild for the officers, and their excitement proved contagious. It was like being back in those heady first days at Court.

At that thought, Harriet sighed, deeply. Jane was just of an age for Court and Lizzie not so very much too young. Jane’s looks were of a style which might so easily take and Lizzie, though she could hardly hold a candle to her sister for beauty, possessed vivacity and ready wit. So often those did better at Court than conventional good looks.

Harriet’s nails clicked in exasperation against the polished wood of her dressing table.

Who was she trying to fool? She knew perfectly well it would never answer. A Court presided over by King James was not somewhere one should bring any family of daughters. Even in this backwater, scandal reached them daily, another blessing of having a regiment in the district. Gossip from the capital, hot, fresh and salty enough to make her realise how little savour there had been in her life over recent years.

No, the Court of King James was no safe place for either Jane or Lizzie. Her irritation, though, was more profound. It was so unfair. Because of the late King’s mischance, Clarence was able to pose as a prudent father both to neighbours and family alike. Take Lizzie, for example. For all her vaunted quick understanding, Lizzie was far too inclined to take her father at face value. How did he contrive it?

Almost two years ago, Harriet had planned the Duplessis family’s assault on wider society, knowing it was past time to start thinking of the future. No son would spring from her exhausted loins to save the family fortunes. Longbourn, with its chalky soil, indifferent tenants and commonplace neighbours, would pass to Clarence’s dim, dusty cousin Collins, and much joy might he have of it.

For the girls, their only salvation lay in marriage. Given the paucity of their portions Harriet would have to rely on strategy to make up the difference. The few young men of the district were a known quantity: either impossible or already spoken for. The Duplessis would have to cast their nets wider.

They would start small, as a general sends scouts into debatable lands. Just Clarence and herself, alone together for the first time in goodness knew how many years, and a few blissful winter weeks in Gondal Town.

Harriet had had every last detail of her campaign planned in her head. She had repeated them to Hill in the sanctuary of the still-room or over precious thimblefuls of imported Constanza wine in the housekeeper’s pantry, until the anticipated scenes became sharper than memory.

Once come to Gondal Town, they would first make their duty to King Ambrosine. That held no terrors for Harriet. As waves scour a sandy beach, nothing remained of that long ago might-have-been. If he even remembered the incident (why should he?) his Grace would have thrown it into a basket labelled “virtue: female, unexplained”. Arranging the audience would have been no trouble. Her brother would have made all smooth and easy. He owed her that.

The castle stormed, the rest would have been simple and delightful: picking up the strands of useful and neglected acquaintance (how, Harriet wondered, was Mary Vittoria doing now?) renewing old friendships, and storing up connections for later seasons, so they would be placed to launch their girls creditably upon the world.

None of it happened. Clarence’s indolence was as inexorable as time itself. Without ever giving an absolute no or saying that the thing could not be, funds had not been released, letters had not been written, some crisis or other on the estate had demanded his full attention, so even thinking about other things, let alone planning them, became quite impossible. In short, he had frittered away one entire winter season and then, behold! it was planting time once more, and no-one could be Philistine enough to drag anyone away from his country estate as it started to put on its spring glories.

And so on until King James’s accession put all such matters out of the question. Yet now, it seemed, Clarence had arrogated to himself the credit of being the bulwark of the family against the dangerous impulses of his frivolous, reckless wife. Each little barb, sardonic aside or meaningful lift of an eyebrow in Lizzie’s direction should Harriet chance to mention the Court balls of her youth told her as much.

Small mercies: they had a regiment quartered on Meryton and that meant possibilities. True, the Army was traditionally the resort of second sons or even third, and discreet enquiries revealed that the Colonel, who had seemed promising at first (spoke of a place, an inheritance from a childless uncle) was affianced and would wed before Shrovetide. That amusing Lieutenant Wickham, with whom Lizzie seemed so taken, repeatedly hinted about “disappointments” which, in the case of a man, usually meant that they considered their fortune by no means equal to their deserts. If things looked like becoming serious in that quarter she would need to caution Lizzie to be on her guard, but for the time being a small flirtation did no-one any harm. Such things, even more than the harpsichord, required practice.

In any event, the presence of the regiment meant every family in the district had put forth their best efforts to entertain the officers. They had seen far more of their neighbours than they could have expected, especially given the sombre season. Mirabile dictu this included the Netherfield party. Harriet flattered herself that with a little judicious pushing and prodding Jane had done enough to captivate Mr Bingley. Indeed, tonight’s ball, the first in Meryton since the King’s death, might with only a soupçon of luck produce an announcement and with it an end to all her worries.

If only dear Jane were a little more forthcoming in her efforts to secure such an eligible prospect. If only Mr Bingley were not so beset with gatekeepers, hostile to the very idea and far more alert than Harriet might wish.

One relief: that harsh, proud Mr Darcy had taken himself off to town. Whether or not he returned in time for tonight’s event was a matter of sublime indifference to Harriet, who had from the outset excluded him from her calculations save as regards his influence over Mr Bingley. In any event, none of her daughters had conceived any feeling towards him warmer than a cordial dislike during his se’nnight’s stay at Longbourn so she deemed it unnecessary to warn them away from him as a comet blazing too high above their ken. Some alliance to consolidate the power and glory of the ruling family was doubtless already in train for Mr Darcy. It might even be what had taken him to town.

“And I hope she’s eighty, with bad breath and a shrewish temper,” Harriet said aloud. “He’s not yours, anyway, my fine lady, for all your airs and graces.”

Caroline Bingley, the lady addressed, made no response, which was less surprising given she was at present three miles off, making ready for the same ball.

Harriet took a restorative sip from the brandy-glass by her right hand, and turned her attention to the always delicate matter of her hair, in which, regrettably, the occasional grey strand had started to make an appearance. She was on the point of ringing for her maid when the unexpected appearance of Clarence in her dressing-room put paid to all thoughts of hairdressing.

He held an open letter in his hand. “Madam, how fortunate to find you before your toilette was far advanced.”

His eyes slid sideways to take in the brandy glass as he spoke, and there was the faintest of edges on the word “advanced”. She felt the tips of her ears go red. Defiantly, she picked up the glass and took a substantial swallow.

“On the contrary, I am almost finished. At our ages, sir, a woman gives up thinking of her own beauty.”

“At our ages, ma’am, a woman commonly has not much beauty to think of.”

The smoothness as the knife went in left her, as ever, unprepared for the pain that followed. She took another, numbing swallow of brandy and pointed towards the letter.

“Sir. Your business?”

Clarence looked vaguely at the letter as if it were the first time he had seen it.

“Ah, yes. This. I have told Mrs Hill we shall have a guest for dinner and to prepare a room for him. I cannot say whether he will attend the ball but we have a spare ticket, in any event.”

Harriet’s jaw dropped. “A guest? At this time? At such short notice? Who, pray?”

“My cousin Collins, who will be at liberty to turn you and our daughters out of Longbourn as soon as the last breath leaves my body.”

Twenty years of marriage had taught her to catch the meaningful emphasis Clarence put on the word ‘daughters’: everyone else, including the oh-so-vauntedly brilliant Lizzie, would have missed it.

In sheer exasperation she reached again for the brandy-glass. “Whatever possessed you to invite the creature here?”

“Why, I rather think he invited himself. He wrote me a little over a month ago. Here, you may read his letter.”

Harriet took the paper her husband held out to her and pored over it, squinting a little and wondering, yet again, whether the time had come for her to consider eyeglasses, at least for strictly private use. It did not help that Mr Collins affected a crabbed, secretarial script and never chose a good Gondalian word where a bad Greek one would do.

“So he has obtained some sort of librarianship with —” She boggled at the scrawl which followed, of which “Lady” and “urgh” were the only legible portions. “With some great lady with Court connections? And so he proposes a reconciliation? How provoking of the man. Why could he not keep quarrelling with you, as his father did before?”

“Indeed, he does seem to have had some scruples on the point. However, his new situation, and, even more, the accession of Prince James to the throne has led him to believe that a new start should be made, an olive branch should be extended, hatchets should be buried and — ah — much to like effect.”

Clarence, Harriet thought sourly, had never had to worry about the ageing effect of spectacles. Not three months after their marriage he had taken to using them when he wished to show her he was preoccupied with matters scholarly, and not to be disturbed. Now they were a permanent part of his armour: presumably this (together with the advantage of leisure) had allowed him to decode cousin Collins’ letter in full.

“And the outcome?” she enquired coldly.

“He is the heir; there seems little point in running away from the fact, tempting as it may appear.” Clarence’s eyes slid sideways towards the brandy glass and Harriet felt her face colour for reasons wholly unrelated to cosmetics.

“I responded to his letter inviting him to visit when his duties to his patroness permitted, and his reply of a se’nnight ago told me that if he was not summoned elsewhere — when we serve the great of the Kingdom, they are our destiny as he eloquently put it — we should expect him for dinner today. As I have received no contrary word from him, I took the liberty of presuming he would, indeed, keep his engagement.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to tell me earlier?”

Clarence spread his hands. “My dear, why add to your cares the prospect of something which seemed, at the time, unlikely to happen?” He cocked his head on one side. “But since I do believe I hear a carriage approaching, it would seem that we will have the pleasure of his company after all. Perhaps I should leave you to complete your toilette so you are ready to greet my cousin as befits the Heir Apparent.”

He withdrew, before Harriet could express her opinion that the Heir Apparent should best be greeted with the contents of a chamberpot, emptied over his head from an upper story. Frustrated, she reached once more for the brandy glass.