Chapter One - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
All through the three kingdoms they tell the tale the same. There was once a lord of ancient lineage and crest-fallen estate who married a lady of surpassing worth and modest dowry, who bore to him three daughters and a son. The eldest daughter was tall and proud, with hair black as a raven’s wing, skin pale as alabaster and lips like rowan-berries. The second had brown hair soft as a thrush’s back, and she had a voice sweet enough to sing the birds out of the trees. But the youngest daughter — ah, her hair shone like the brightest of chestnuts, her eyes were bluer than a kingfisher’s crown and she laughed, played and sang all day long. And those who knew her said that, poor as her fortune was, some day a prince would come riding by, and carry her off to live beside him in his palace and become the mother of kings.
For every puissant prince must be in want of a wife.
Gondal, August 1688
The servants directed him to the chapel. It was in darkness save for the pool of candlelight in the sanctuary, from which rose the low mutter of the priest saying Mass. He half-expected to hear the Requiem. As he rode, his mind had repeatedly returned to Dies irae, dies illa, solvent saeclum in favilla but it was not yet time, it seemed. The dark figure kneeling at the front did not stir, but his arrival had been noted. After a moment, he stepped forward and knelt beside his cousin, lips shaped to utter the time-smoothed words from which, on this night of all nights, he received no comfort. Perchance he sleeps.
His thoughts abstracted, the ending of the Mass caught him by surprise. He scrambled belatedly to his feet and followed his cousin out of the chapel. Still in silence, the two men turned right by common assent, pacing the gravel path which encircled the chapel until they reached the angle between a buttress and the chapel wall which had witnessed so many confidences over the years.
The stone gave back the day’s heat. The rising harvest moon bathed the old house and estate in a deceptively serene silver light. A falling star streaked down the sky, perhaps a portent of events to the south.
Discomfited, he spoke first.
“You did not go to the capital?”
“As you see.” Perhaps thinking that overly brusque, Darcy added, “His Grace visited Pemberley often in my father’s day, and always took pleasure in the place. When the time comes, I can mourn him better here than elsewhere.”
When the time comes. Futile optimism worthy of the Forty! For all either of them knew, King Ambrosine might have been dead two days, the messenger still on the road.
“People commonly seek the company of their family at times such as these.” Colonel Fitzwilliam did not quite make it a question.
“Indeed, so I do.” His cousin’s voice had an edge to it. “Georgiana is here with me.”
“It was not your sister of whom I was thinking.”
His sardonic tone woke a glimmer of humour in Darcy. “No? Well, should we say I lingered at Pemberley in the hope that I might offer hospitality should my favourite cousin chance to pass by on his travels?”
Colonel Fitzwilliam shivered, a goose walking over his grave. In the days to come, a matter as little as the stress Darcy had placed on the word “favourite” might send them both to the Caitiff’s Tower. Darcy’s people were famously loyal but, even so there were ears ever open to receive such stuff. Odd, how habit accustomed one to ideas one would have pronounced unthinkable six short months ago.
He made his voice determinedly light.
“I regret, then, that I have disrupted your affairs to such little purpose. I may enjoy your hospitality only until the morning. My regiment is ordered to Fort Whitburn, to strengthen the Borders. Given the circumstances, the loyalty of the southern regiments was thought better not tested. They replace us on the north-western marches, and I wish them joy of it.”
“But your own men are loyal?”
“For the moment.” That half-admission offended his soldier’s soul; he felt the need to amplify. “The Abruzzi affair cut deep. The man was well-liked. I have heard it said he never spent a life needlessly, nor one unmourned.”
Darcy nodded, but Colonel Fitzwilliam knew the impossibility of explaining such things to a civilian. Better to concentrate on what his cousin could understand.
“Word has it that it was not so much a duel as an assassination. And for the challenger to be preferred to Abruzzi’s command with his body barely cold —”
Darcy sounded bitter. “Why your surprise, cousin? Moran is intimate with Prince James: also, for all his many faults, a thorough soldier. The command of a crack regiment might be thought an honour long overdue.”
“Even for the favourites of princes, such prize positions do not fall open often.” He frowned. “Though maybe vacancies will increase, should Moran’s way of creating them become the fashion.”
“Many unaccustomed things become the fashion,” Darcy said. “And many good old customs fall into disuse. Including, it would seem, the right of a maiden to say ‘No’ to an uncongenial match.”
His heart stopped. Darcy’s sister, their joint ward, was just fifteen, and her youth was not the only reason her marriage was an ever-present worry to her guardians.
“Your meaning, cousin?” he enquired, cautiously.
“Just that my heart would be a great deal easier were I to see Georgiana safely wed to a man of her choosing before too many months are over.”
“Safely?” Colonel Fitzwilliam’s fists clenched. “Who would dare threaten Georgiana?”
Darcy raised his eyebrows. “You’ve been away on the north-western marches too long. Did news of Sir Ronald Traquair’s marriage to Lady Agnes Campbell not reach you there?”
The intense smells of late summer were thick in his nostrils: spoilt fruit from beneath the orchard bough, sun-warmed hay, the reek of the stable dung-heap. He swallowed hard.
“Traquair? But he’s pushing sixty if he’s a day, and Lady Agnes must be even younger than Georgiana.”
Darcy stretched out his hand as if to lay it on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s arm, but thought better of it. “Six months younger. She and the Princess were born in the same week. Lady Agnes would have attended the Princess to Gaaldine but I understand her father forbade it, for her own safety.”
The bodies of the seven armsmen and two attendant ladies who had perished in the attack on the Princess’s wedding party had been brought home and solemnly interred in the Cathedral of SS Geraldine and Augusta. After the ceremony, Colonel Fitzwilliam had heard a first-hand account of the action from one of the survivors. The thought of plump, puppyish Lady Agnes caught up in that bloody horror made him want to retch.
He drew a deep breath. “Lucky.”
“So we all thought. At the time. Marriage to Traquair, though —”
Darcy did not need to complete the sentence. Traquair had spent two wives’ fortunes already, for the most part on brandy, high play and the women of the lower town.
“How could her father permit such a thing? Quite apart from the matter of age, Traquair has neither rank nor fortune to recommend him, and such influence as he may once have possessed at Court–
“—Was in the days of Crown Prince Gerald,” Darcy concluded. “Traquair stood to the Crown Prince then as Moran stands now to his son. Now do you see?”
“That the heavens have circled and stars long eclipsed rise once more? What a constellation they make, too, those of that set whom drink and the pox have so far spared.” Colonel Fitzwilliam wrinkled his nose. “But I would not like to think so ill of the Earl. To sacrifice his daughter for advancement, and on such an altar.”
Darcy’s voice dropped; Colonel Fitzwilliam had to strain to hear him.
“If you wish to retain your good opinion of the Earl, it may help to know his son and heir was taken into the Caitiff’s Tower three weeks before the wedding took place.”
He dropped his own voice likewise. “What? Lord Glenelden? But I heard nothing of this.”
“Is it news any family would share? Not just Glenelden’s life but the Earl’s entire credit hung in the balance. From what I have been able to make out, letters were found in Glenelden’s chambers, suggesting a treasonous correspondence with Angria.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam nodded, slowly. “And, given the King’s illness, the Earl was in no position to protest his son’s innocence directly?”
“Quite so. Nor — so your father tells me — were any of his connexions on the Council willing to intervene. They feared it might be taken as evidence of complicity in whatever plot the Tower’s examiners uncovered.”
It was a warm night, but Colonel Fitzwilliam shivered. “So I suppose Traquair undertook to lend his influence. At a price.”
“Our old schoolmaster would call that mere speculation.” Darcy’s smile had no humour in it. “Still, less than three weeks later Glenelden was released without a stain on his honour. The inquisitors were fully satisfied that the so-called correspondence with Angria was an impudent forgery, planted in his rooms by a recently dismissed valet. But by the time Glenelden saw sunlight once more, he was Traquair’s brother and had been so for two days.”
The whole scheme rolled out before him, neat as the solution to one of the problems in gunnery and siege-craft Major Horniman had posed to him as a young ensign.
“And never the smallest thread to implicate Prince James.”
His cousin, having had days or weeks to reach the same conclusion, gave a small, acknowledging grunt.
“Now do you see why Georgiana’s marriage is much on my mind? I would see her safely wed to a man of her own choosing before Prince James seeks to engage her in his stratagems.”
Horrible visions of Georgiana fleeing to the Gaaldine border in the company of some apothecary or attorney, a desperate nose ahead of a forced marriage to one of the dissolute blades of the Prince’s set, shivered in front of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s eyes.
“Do you think of anyone in particular?” he enquired cautiously.
“I had thoughts of Charles Bingley.” Darcy’s studied casualness did not deceive his cousin. “He was much with us this summer and Georgiana quite came out of her shell. She remarked, when he left us, that it was almost like saying farewell to another brother.”
Three years older, and with a soldier’s knowledge of the world, Colonel Fitzwilliam did not derive from this intelligence a perfect conviction that Georgiana saw Bingley as husband material. He contented himself by saying, “Charles Bingley’s fortune is new, but honestly got, by all accounts.”
“That was his father. The manufactories were all sold up before Charles was born. He had completely the upbringing and education of a gentleman.”
“I don’t doubt it; you would hardly have kept him so close about you otherwise. Does he have a place?”
Darcy frowned. “No. He is looking to buy an estate but every place he sees is ‘universally charming, possesses every perfection’. Small wonder he cannot bring himself to settle on just one.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled, then realised his cousin’s face remained serious.
“Are you afraid he will procrastinate altogether and leave it to the next generation to purchase?”
“Left to himself, it might well come to that. But he has sisters. The younger one is yet to wed. I fancy she sees a country estate as the setting which will best display her charms.”
Darcy’s tone suggested that Miss Bingley might have made it slightly too plain that she saw Pemberley itself as the quintessential country estate for that purpose. Still, that was an old story. Not one man in a hundred or woman in a thousand saw the man rather than the estate when first meeting his cousin.
“Is she pretty?”
“Very, if your taste runs to hot-house flowers. Ambitious, also.”
“Ah.” Now he saw what had disturbed Darcy. “For her brother, as well as herself?”
“Quite so.” Darcy inclined his head slightly. “Charles is too open in temperament, too willing to see the good in everyone, too slow to look for meanings under words ever to make a courtier, even in ordinary times. But love is blind, even sisterly love. Doubtless she will force him to find an estate within easy distance of the capital and there they will entertain. Like leaving a baby unattended in the mountains, hoping to will wolves out of existence.”
The heat in his voice made clear, as if there had ever been any doubt, the direction in which Darcy’s thoughts were tending. Of course. Georgiana’s prospective marriage would have stirred the murk at the bottom of that particular pond, if anything could.
“History does not have to repeat itself,” Colonel Fitzwilliam murmured. “At least Charles Bingley starts having the advantage of a good heart.”
“The better the man, the greater the Prince’s triumph.”
“Hush. Even here, such words are dangerous. Come, cousin, let us back to the chapel. It may be God has a miracle in store for Gondal, even at this late date.”
There was little to do in a country district, even if one tried to make the best of it.
“We dine with four-and-twenty-families,” Harriet had said once, defensively, to some visiting grandee from the capital who’d tried to put the district down. Four-and-twenty families! As if she did not know what a court could be. But the grandee had seen only what she had become, not what she had once been, and turned to the guest on his other side, not troubling to hide the curl of scorn on his lip.
Of course she knew the advantages and defects of every house of credit in the district, from the badness of the attics at Purvis Lodge to the inconvenient way the chimneys at Haye-Park smoked when there was anything of west in the winter wind. What else was there to discuss over the tea-cups or the madeira glasses? (More often madeira these days, or even brandy: there really was nothing to do in a country district. Nothing by way of entertainment rather than drudgery, at least, and of drudgery she was full to surfeit.)
Given the dearth of other possibilities, it was a mystery why Netherfield Park should have stood untenanted so long.
The house was of ample size, built less than forty years ago in what was then the best modern style. The original inhabitants had still been living there when Clarence first brought her to Meryton: Sir Vernon Hooper, widower, and his daughter, Molly, a mousy thing, so self-effacing as to be almost invisible. Quite a little prodigy on the harpsichord, notwithstanding. Harriet could still remember the tooth-grinding ache of sitting in one of the Netherfield parlours throughout an interminable tinkling afternoon, fighting the headache and nausea of pregnancy, torn between twin desires to strangle the priggish little brat and to run screaming into the shrubbery.
It had been on the journey back from Netherfield, she recalled with a sharp pang, that she had started to miscarry. A son, the midwife had told her later, as if by way of consolation. Her one and only miscarriage; her one and only son. Five girls had followed, their robust health perpetual reproach to her. She would not have exchanged any of her daughters for their half-formed, never-known brother, yet still she wondered. If she could have carried the boy to term or, say, if Jane had been John or Mary, Martin would Clarence love her still? Had Clarence ever loved her? Or had she been just the woman there, at the right time, to breed (irony piled on irony) the son to save his ancestral estates?
It had not — she bit her lip so fiercely in internal denial that she tasted blood — it had not been for that reason that she’d avoided visiting Netherfield subsequently. Indeed, Jane had been conceived hard on the miscarriage, and Harriet had barely stirred from Longbourn during the whole of that pregnancy, for fear of history repeating itself.
By the time she was up and around again following her lying in, Sir Vernon himself had entered a sharp decline. Not long after it was bruited about the district that Sir Vernon was unwell, Sir Vernon was laid to rest. His daughter was packed off to stay with her mother’s relatives: relatives so great and proud they had never taken the smallest particle of interest in the girl during her father’s lifetime. Netherfield Park remained empty, save for occasional short-term lettings to tenants who arrived in the district in a little flurry of importance and departed with no fanfare six months or a year later.
But now hot and strong from Meryton came the news. Netherfield Park was let at last and to a young gentleman of fortune!
The girls were a-twitter and Harriet, too, took heart. A glittering marriage for Jane would not merely mend the fortunes of her eldest girl, but provide a secure anchor for all the rest. No longer would she wake at two of the morning, that witching hour when the comforting warmth of the ratafia she was accustomed to by way of nightcap had ebbed, to spend the lonely blank hours till dawn listing all the ways she had failed her children, picturing them forlorn, bereft, abandoned, turned out onto the streets, all because of her blameworthy, inadequate, daughter-prolific womb.
Surely the unknown gentleman could not but choose Jane; so good, so accomplished, so beautiful, so effortlessly a daughter of the old gentry of Gondal with all the natural advantages Harriet Duplessis, once Harriet Watson, daughter of a physician (never, never, never a surgeon) had lacked.
True, everything had the defects of its qualities. Jane perhaps was too good, too gentle. If this marriage to the new tenant of Netherfield were to proceed, Jane would need help. More specifically, she would need the sharp elbows and keen eye on the main chance which Harriet Watson had developed when, so many years ago, the Fates had granted her that opportunity. She had grabbed Clarence Duplessis with both hands. How could a sparsely-dowered girl (curse Papa and his endless charities and easy-going ways) do otherwise? And if she’d only borne a boy —
No need to worry about that, now. Netherfield was let at last, and to a gentleman of good fortune. It only needed her to stir Clarence, whom disappointment had rendered indolent as well as cynical, to call upon this Mr Bingley and soon all their troubles would be over.
Harriet rang the bell, and summoned Mrs Hill to bring her a carafe of ratafia, in anticipatory celebration.
Charles Bingley had never found his friend to present so aweful an aspect as he did now, his elbow propped against the carved marble mantelpiece of his austere townhouse.
“Netherfield Park? Are you completely mad, and blind to boot?”
Charles inhaled, hoping it would lend him fortitude. “But it’s the most charming place. Everything a single man like me could wish for. I daresay there’s nothing wrong with the furnishings a little fresh air and polish can’t cure in a trice. Isn’t that so, Caroline?”
The lady addressed inclined her head languidly. “Not a stick in the place that doesn’t deserve to be burnt.”
“Pooh, pooh, Caroline. Good, solid, Gondalian craftsmanship. A little heavy, maybe, but with beeswax and new draperies it will look quite the thing, and we can always bring sophas and cabinets from the city to freshen the place up a little. With your harpsichord in the corner of the principal withdrawing room it will be as cosy as anywhere in the three kingdoms.”
His sister made an airy gesture. “No-one expects men to have any taste when it comes to composing interiors. That is why, when one has the pleasure of seeing somewhere like this — so neat, so complete, so exquisite — surprise makes one’s pleasure all the greater.”
The stuffed expression Darcy assumed in the face of such blatant flattery tempted Charles to giggle.
“Caroline, you should not be so dismissive of Netherfield. It can hardly be bereft of fashion, given the agent told me the house was the property (or former property, I forget) of some connexion of Darcy’s, whose taste you acknowledge to be so nice.”
His sister leant across the harpsichord, thereby displaying, in her brother’s unbiased opinion, a quite unwonted expanse of cleavage for the benefit of the gentlemen by the fire.
“A connexion of Mr Darcy? Depend on it, that is something the agent chooses to proclaim wherever he goes. What was it, pray? A third cousin once removed? A great-uncle’s stepmother? Do tell.”
Darcy flushed first white, then red. After a moment, he said, as if through gritted teeth, “My late mother’s younger sister made a most imprudent second match. Unhappily, she died in childbed not long afterwards. On her husband’s following her to the grave some few years later, my aunt — that is, my mother’s elder sister — took my poor cousin into her own house and raised her as a daughter. I believe my aunt sold the house because it held unhappy memories for my cousin. I know nothing of what became of it after that.”
Caroline leant yet further forwards. “Then, Charles, it is clear. You will have to look elsewhere for your country retreat. You cannot live somewhere where Mr Darcy is not first among your guests, yet how could you expect him to visit a place with such painful associations? The matter is settled, Mr Darcy. The idea of Netherfield Park is quite given up.”
As if to emphasise how completely she regarded the topic as closed, she turned her back to them both, and returned to her previous occupation of sorting through her music collection to find the gavotte she had promised to send to Darcy’s sister.
Charles felt his face flame red-hot. How typical of Caroline. How damnably typical. She had been hotter for Netherfield even than himself; its archaic furniture more than compensated for by its easy distance from the capital and the well-kept expanses of its pleasure grounds. She had, too, been badgering him to get something settled now, during the dead days of deep mourning for the King. She was bored; one could not organise parties of pleasure in the capital with mourning banners still hanging from every public building and the funeral not two weeks past. Opening up their own country house, albeit one simply on lease, would give her pastime as well as consequence.
And now to turn the matter round like that! Holy Virgin, he was going to have to admit in front of Darcy — Darcy, who never took any step without considering it from all angles, Darcy who with a reputed income of thirty thousand thalers per year was more prudent than a younger son on a strict father’s allowance — that he had signed the lease of Netherfield before leaving Longbourn. Could he even give it up at the next quarter day? There had been something about minimum lease terms in the document the attorney had put before him, but he could recall nothing of the details.
He turned towards his friend and his words died on his lips. Darcy looked more gorgon-like than ever, but his petrifying wrath was directed solely at Caroline’s unconscious back. His words, when they came, were uttered with the most repulsive formality.
“There is no need for any sacrifice on my account. I spoke too hastily. The place holds no memories for me, pleasant or otherwise. We did not visit there. Charles has been looking for a place so long, now he has found one that suits he had best close with it. Be assured, I should be happy to visit you there, should I be invited.”
“Well, that’s settled,” Charles said, the sunny good humour of his voice masking the turmoil of his feelings. “I shall despatch Nicolls with the advance party, and ensure all is ready to receive us. We will be there by All Souls’ Eve.”