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

“So, Miss Duplessis, another splendid day, is it not? At times like this, one can see why they call this region ‘the garden of Gondal’.”

Elizabeth nodded. The fresh green leaves above their heads filtered a sun which would otherwise be overpoweringly hot. The stream flanking the path rippled between mossy stones. Dragonflies danced over its pools. Left wilder than the mannered formality of the grounds nearer Rosings Hall, this part of the park felt home-like. Since the arrival of Mr Darcy and his cousin almost two weeks ago, the two young men had frequently met her walking there; sometimes together, more often Mr Darcy alone. Although, the first time that happened, she had made a point of letting him know it was a favourite haunt of hers, not only had she met him there a second and even a third time but he had actually taken pains to converse with her. Not, of course, that she had troubled to listen much.

This, however, was the first time she had met Mr Darcy’s cousin on his own.

“Indeed, Colonel Fitzwilliam, I have found it a most delightful place; so sheltered and fruitful. Did you spend much time here as a child?”

“Very little. My father’s seat lies west of Pemberley and he has another place on Lake Elderno. My childhood was spent between those two estates and Pemberley, of course. But after Darcy and I grew up we adopted the custom of spending a few weeks here at this time of year so we could see our cousin, Miss Hooper. We are fortunate to meet you at Hunsford, though. It is quite the gift of fate.”

“Indeed?” If this were flattery, Elizabeth found she could endure it with surprising fortitude. “Why so?”

“Well, this year, we had planned our visit to coincide with Molly’s return to Rosings and when Darcy heard she would be absent he wrote to our aunt asking if we might delay our visit, but —”

He spread his hands in a gesture which conveyed such comic helplessness that Elizabeth laughed out loud.

“No: I can imagine Lady Catherine would not look kindly on anyone seeking to alter her plans, once she has decided on them.”

“Indeed not.” His face changed, becoming more serious. “Though perhaps it is unkind of me to laugh about it. In accepting my cousin as an adoptive daughter, my aunt took on the most complete disarrangements of her habits, and one with lasting consequences.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, inviting his confidence, were he minded to share it.

After a pause, Colonel Fitzwilliam continued.

“You must, of course, be aware my father’s youngest sister became Crown Prince Gerald’s second wife. What you may be unaware of, however, is how materially that changed the whole family’s fortunes. Her father — my grandfather — was elevated to the rank of Earl and, especially when his daughter gave birth to Prince James, loaded with land grants and other favours. As the elder sisters of a Crown Princess and the daughters of an Earl, my aunts Anne and Catherine were, of course, much sought after in marriage. Lady Catherine married Sir Lewis de Bourgh and a little later Lady Anne married Mr Darcy. The sisters were very different in temperament. Lady Anne delighted in the countryside and spent very little time at Court after her marriage, whereas Lady Catherine and Sir Lewis were prominent among the Crown Prince’s set. They say the entertainments at Rosings in those days were among the wonders of the three kingdoms.”

Elizabeth half-wondered whether the emphasis he placed upon “entertainments” was born out of astonishment that the word might ever take a respectable position in a sentence which also included “Rosings.”

“I am sorry to have missed them,” she murmured.

“I too — But no matter. The Crown Prince’s death was sudden —”

And violent. And most completely hushed up. Elizabeth heard Papa’s voice. Breathless, she nodded acknowledgement.

“— and it caused a degree of scandal when my poor Aunt Elaine should, so soon after being rendered a widow, consent to become a wife once more. Especially when her choice was — who he was.”

Elizabeth found herself moved to partisanship on the part of the long dead woman. “Your family felt she married beneath her?”

Colonel Fitzwilliam began an assenting gesture, but halted it.

“Not quite. She married a gentleman of long and honourable lineage and of moderate fortune. Such a man, indeed, as her own father had been, before her marriage to the Crown Prince elevated him to the ranks of the nobility. That, I believe, was what stung the most. My father and his sisters saw it as her seeking to undo the past, in such a way as to undermine the family’s position most profoundly. The wounds still run very deep, that I know. Should the day come when I seek my father’s blessing on my own engagement, I do not doubt that my unhappy Aunt Elaine’s choices will be prominent in his thoughts. It would be hard — nigh on impossible, indeed — for me to present as my intended bride a gentlewoman of modest fortune, whatever her merits, without the risk of utterly estranging my revered Papa.”

Is that meant for me? She had, more than once, wondered if Colonel Fitzwilliam were attracted to her. If so, this might well be his way of letting her down lightly.

“And did the King and Queen see your aunt’s remarriage in the same light?”

“The King, I believe so. Or at least, he saw it as a slight, since she had not sought royal consent to wed and the wedding took place before Aunt Elaine’s mourning year was out. His resentment affected our standing at Court. Lady Catherine, in particular, felt the effects greatly.”

The green leaves of Rosings park waved above them. In the circumstances, Elizabeth found it difficult to feel too much sympathy for Lady Catherine.

“But was your aunt Elaine’s second marriage happy, despite all that?”

Colonel Fitzwilliam paused. “I believe it promised most favourably, until my aunt died giving birth to my cousin Molly. Even that did not reconcile the King to her widower and child. They lived in the most perfect obscurity until Sir Vernon also died, when Molly was about ten. In offering to adopt her, my aunt Catherine risked any advances she had made into the King’s good graces, and though the Queen supported her fully, I believe she very much felt the estrangement from Court circles and her friends there.”

While honouring all that Colonel Fitzwilliam intended, Elizabeth could not but feel that it might have been better for an orphaned little girl not to have grown up constantly reminded of how many sacrifices had been made for her sake. She could not imagine Lady Catherine would have left her in ignorance of them. Since letting slip any hint of these thoughts would be imprudent, she elected to change the subject.

“So, then, you have four cousins on your father’s side, his grace the King being the eldest and Mr Darcy’s sister Georgiana the youngest? How does she get on? She will I collect be rising sixteen? It can be an awkward age and I don’t doubt, if she has the true Darcy spirit, she may like to have her own way.”

“What leads you to say that?” All traces of banter vanished from Colonel Fitzwilliam’s tone.

Startled, Elizabeth jerked her head up to see suppressed anger in his expression. She hastened to mollify him.

“Oh, not the least thing in the world. I was speaking quite generally. I know not a scrap of harm of her, and she is a great favourite with a lady of my acquaintance, a Miss Caroline Bingley.”

“Ah. I see.” Colonel Fitzwilliam, it seemed, had some difficulty recovering his earlier ease of manner. Elizabeth chattered on, trying to smooth over the awkward moment.

“Perhaps you know the Bingleys?”

“I know of them.” Perhaps suspecting that sounded too cold, he added, “That is, Charles Bingley is a pleasant, gentlemanlike man, and a great friend of my cousin.”

That reminder served as an irritant to Elizabeth’s jangled nerves, and her voice came out drier that she intended.

“Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley and takes a prodigious deal of care of him.”

“Care of him! Yes, I really believe Darcy does take care of him in those points where he most wants care. From something that he told me in our journey hither, I have reason to think Bingley very much indebted to him. But I ought to beg his pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant. It was all conjecture.”

“What is it you mean?”

“It is a circumstance which Darcy could not wish to be generally known, because if it were to get round to the lady’s family, it would be an unpleasant thing.”

“You may depend upon my not mentioning it.” Elizabeth’s sincerity could not have been more patent.

“And remember that I have not much reason for supposing it to be Bingley. What he told me was merely this: that he congratulated himself on having lately saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage, but without mentioning names or any other particulars. But he and Bingley were together for the greater part of last summer and autumn, and I judge Bingley the sort of young man who might get into that kind of scrape.”

Concealing her fury took all the strength she could muster. “And did he explain his reasoning?”

“I understand there were some very strong objections against the lady.”

Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “And what arts did he use to separate them?”

Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled. “He did not talk to me of his own arts. He only told me what I have now told you.”

She walked on in silence, until she was sure she was controlled enough to speak with a plausible veneer of dispassion.

“And in a matter of such moment to Mr Bingley, why was Mr Darcy to be the judge?”

“You are disposed to consider his interference officious?”

“I do not see what right Mr. Darcy had to decide on the propriety of his friend’s inclination, or why, upon his own judgement alone, he was to determine and direct in what manner his friend was to be happy.” She paused, and drew a deep breath. “But, as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn him. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case.”

“That is not an unnatural surmise,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said, “but it is a lessening of the honour of my cousin’s triumph very sadly.”

He smiled. That did it: she had to change the subject once more, or in her fury she would betray herself and Jane together.

“So, Colonel Fitzwilliam, the park is just coming into its summer beauties, and Lady Catherine was talking of pic-nics and parties of pleasure. Will you be taking part in them, or do you and your cousin plan to leave Rosings before then?”

“To my sorrow, I believe we must leave tomorrow afternoon, or the day after at the absolute latest. Hence my decision to make my tour of the park today. There has been some quite extraordinary intelligence come in from Gaaldine, and I would rather be on the spot should new orders be cut for me, than have to scramble to obey from a distance.”

Elizabeth’s heart leapt into her throat. “Is it to be war, so soon?”

There was an odd, calculating look about his face, as if he were mentally sorting out what intelligence was his to share and what needed to be locked tight away, for the good of Gondal.

“Rather the reverse, or so we hope. Conflicting accounts are swirling about, and I do not doubt fresher intelligence will already have reached the Palace, but from what one can tell there has been some serious estrangement between the King of Gaaldine and his brother, the Crown Prince. This week a proclamation in the pulpits and market-places of Gaaldine required Sherlock, Crown Prince of Gaaldine to surrender to his King’s authority within twenty-one days on pain of exile.”

A day of shocks indeed! How would Uncle John fare, caught up in such an intrigue, with his loyalties to the Crown Princess above all else?

“Do we know what may have occurred to prompt this?”

Colonel Fitzwilliam led them to sit on a fallen tree, having first spread his handkerchief so that Elizabeth’s gown could take no hurt from its mossy bark.

“We can guess. You may be aware that his late grace King Mycroft I of Gaaldine left numerous natural children.”

From something Uncle John had let slip in one of his letters, King Mycroft’s namesake the current King of Gaaldine seemed to be in a fair way towards emulating his grandfather. Elizabeth prudently kept this intelligence to herself, and merely nodded to Colonel Fitzwilliam to continue.

“Very recently, however, a new rumour has begun to be whispered in the Palace: a rumour that before Mycroft I rode out on his last campaign, he contracted a secret marriage with his then mistress. There were further rumours that she bore a son, after the King’s own death. And also that that son survived infancy.”

The green-gold of the park shimmered before her eyes. “But — such a one would be —” Such was the enormity of the idea, Elizabeth’s voice failed her.

“Indeed he would. His mere presence, particularly if he could find disaffected noblemen to support his claims, could provoke civil war in Gaaldine, and make it impossible for them to look northwards at us.”

He did not sound as happy about this as Elizabeth might have expected. Perhaps he had hoped for professional advancement from the rumoured campaign against Gaaldine.

“And the estrangement between the King of Gaaldine and his brother concerns this?” she prompted.

“Stories differ. However, most agree that some days before the proclamation there seems to have been a meeting between the Crown Prince and the man in question — or boy, rather, since he can be no more than seventeen, or eighteen at the outside.”

Her own age. It shocked her to think that Colonel Fitzwilliam might think of her as a mere girl, though of course Mama always said that men were allowed to grow up more slowly than women, so it was safer always to think of oneself as the elder, when dealing with a male contemporary.

“Where did this meeting take place?”

“There is a small town in north-east Gaaldine; it has a famous bridge —”

A sheet from Papa’s portfolio of maps unrolled before the eye of her imagination. At the bottom was a hand-tinted scene of men and women in the dress of thirty years ago, who stood on a riverbank and marvelled at the single span crossing the gorge above their heads. She knew exactly where that small town was.

Less than twenty leagues from Rosings as the crow flies.

“What happened there?”

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s face had that calculating expression again. “Rumour runs wild. I expect to hear more when we reach Gondal Town. What all the witnesses attest to, however, is that a man and a boy of about the right ages met on the bridge, had a few minutes conversation, and then both went over the parapet, and have not been seen since, either alive or dead.”

Elizabeth’s hand went to her mouth. “I had not an idea of any of this.”

Her companion looked amused. “Why should you? At the time it would have been considered just a local tragedy — madness, a feud, a joint suicide, who knows?”

Would have been?”

“Until several companies of soldiery turned up out of nowhere and started beating the downstream river banks, on both sides. That at once took the matter out of the sphere of local feud and, whether by accident or by design on the part of one or more of the factions whose interest must have been bound up in procuring such a meeting, sufficient information was dropped for the local people to get a pretty clear idea of who the parties must have been.”

“And do you know if they have found —?” She tailed off.

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s expression was grim. “No trace of either man. But, of course, if either or both of them survived the fall, we cannot rule out their having crossed the border. But it leaves Princess Charis in the most equivocal position. King James will surely have a mind to his niece’s protection. But come. They will be sending out companies of soldiers to search for us if we are out much longer and I still have letters to write, taking my leave of our friends in the district.”

He escorted her to Charlotte’s door, where she found Charlotte engrossed in negotiating with the fishmonger and too distracted to take note of Elizabeth’s strained manner. She escaped upstairs, her heart almost too full for continuing its proper office.

The luxury of tears, though, had to be postponed for a little. She reached for her writing case, and began a letter, the words tumbling over themselves as if coming from a well uncapped within her.

My dear uncle
Rumours of alarming purport have reached us here, such that you and her grace—
She paused, thought, crossed out “her grace” and substituted “yr most honoured charge” are foremost in my mind. My heart is turned in especial towards her; from the limited intelligence which has come to hand, it seems she finds herself betrayed in that quarter where she should feel most secure. How profoundly I sympathise with her situation! Given our respective ranks it would be improper to express it, were it not, my dear uncle, I can be confident in your discretion. I could not but write on such an occasion to tell you how close you both lie in our prayers. If there is any means by which I can aid you, please contrive to tell me of it. As you will see from the direction of this letter, I am within reach of those on whom your charge has all the claims of relationship and affection, and who have power within the land and outside its borders. Further, I doubt not that all matters of family PRIDE and family CREDIT lie close to their hearts; all too much so, too often, but I will not burden you with trivial personal concerns at this time. A line from you will tell me whether I may speak to them of our connection or not. Farewell and may the Blessed Virgin protect you. Yr most loving niece,

After a little thought, she sealed it and placed it inside an envelope addressed to Mgstra Sarai Benveniste at the Poor Person’s Lying In Hospital in Gaaldine’s capital, under cover of a brief couple of lines asking her to forward it to John Watson since Elizabeth was unsure of his current direction. She still cherished memories of the unassuming woman with the brilliant smile who had accompanied her convalescent uncle to Longbourn after the disaster of Vannstown and who had made a point of sending birthday gifts to her and Jane for years after. She, too, might be suffering the aftermath of the Crown Prince’s downfall, since he was, Elizabeth collected, the principal patron of the hospital. Still, her uncle had spoken of Sarai Benveniste principally in connection with the Princess’s charitable work there and that might shield her, at least for the moment.

On descending, she found Charlotte and the fishmonger wreathed in smiles, their negotiation having apparently concluded with credit on both sides. Seeing his empty creels, a thought struck Elizabeth.

“Do you return to Elbe tonight?”

The fishmonger seemed struck dumb at being addressed so directly, but after a little pressing was persuaded to admit that, allowing for a few hours rest at his uncle’s house, dawn would rise for him over Elbe harbour.

“In that case, I wonder if you might take this letter and see it safe on a boat for Gaaldine?” She extended the letter, together with a small purse whose contents she thought should cover all relevant expenses, with a little over for compliments.

Charlotte frowned.

“Elizabeth, my dear. Lady Catherine would frank every letter which you might wish to send.”

She smiled. “I’m sure she would. But I have trespassed too far on Lady Catherine’s good nature in that regard. I do not wish her to think either me or you encroaching.” She turned to the fishmonger. “It will not put you out of your way?”

Mindful, no doubt, that his interest was bound up with acquiescence, the fishmonger shook his head. After his departure, Elizabeth was at last released to go to her room and give her pent-up feelings the release of tears. So severe was the headache that this brought on that she had no difficulty in convincing Charlotte that she was quite unequal to the proposed evening’s tea-drinking at Rosings, despite Mr Collins’ fears that Lady Catherine might take this amiss, and his fussing several times along the landing, asking in a loud, nerve-jangling whisper (which she supposed was his concession to her illness) whether she was sure the exertion would not do her good?

Her point carried at last and her hosts departed across the park to Rosings.