Chapter Seven - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
“So, I can be assured you will attend tonight?” Charis said.
“Consider it set in stone.”
John did not look up from his correspondence. She drew a deep breath.
“Good. The event promises splendidly. Live dragons are to perform a masque for our evening’s entertainment and Frances is in so much doubt about what to wear that I have persuaded her to appear as Venus Anadyomene, to avoid her having to make her mind up.”
John nodded, and turned the page he was perusing, so he could re-read it.
“I myself have had the Mezentian Coronet broken up into its constituent stones and will be wearing the largest in my navel at tonight’s event. I am not yet sure what to do with the remainder. Perhaps I shall auction them at the party, for the benefit of the lying-in hospital. If so, Big Gertie has undertaken that her girls will display them to best advantage, to ensure the bidding runs high.”
“Sound move, that.”
Charis’ hand smacked down onto the tooled leather expanse of the desk. “John! Admit it. You’ve not listened to a single thing I have said for at least the last quarter turn.”
“You were talking about your birthday dinner and ball this evening,” John said, defensively.
“In general. But certainly not in particular.” Sherlock’s self-assured tones cut through the air in the chilly study. John and Charis looked up.
“And when did you arrive?” Charis demanded.
“Early enough. What an extraordinarily sensible proposal for the Mezentian Coronet. Its setting must have been hideous when first conceived and time has not been kind to it. But I daresay Mycroft will be boring about permitting your otherwise excellent plan. So, John, what disaster has your niece contrived to embrangle herself in?”
“How did you know my letter came from a niece?”
Sherlock leant against the edge of the desk.
“Imprimis the only courier we have had today came in from the port a turn and a half ago. There are few boats sailing at this time of year. Coastal traffic between the three kingdoms and some desultory fishing is about the size of it. So the letter must have come from either Gondal or southern Gaaldine and the winds have set strongly from the north for the last five days. Secundus the hand is also that of Gondal. Given the similarity between that hand and my wife’s, this could only have been written by a woman, and a gentlewoman at that. Tertius the degree of abstraction which the letter provoked in you suggested that you have concern — anxiety, even — for the writer. Quartus your attitude is protective, almost paternal, suggesting that the writer is young: someone for whom you both feel the responsibility of a close relative and in whose own parents you place little confidence.
“Ergo: the writer is one of your sister’s daughters, and since the difficulties of getting a letter to Gaaldine in the off-season and the current political climate are numerous, the fact that she has written at all implies a crisis of no small dimensions.”
John blinked. “If it does, I wish she could have been clearer about it. All I can tell from this letter is that her sister has suffered a disappointment in love, and for some reason Lizzie blames Mr Darcy of Pemberley — who is not, apparently, the man in question — for that disappointment.”
“Mr Darcy?” Charis came round to John’s side of the desk. “Georgiana’s brother?”
Sherlock snapped his fingers. “Of course. The nephew of the Earl of Ula: connexions of the Pretender on his mother’s side. Given the politics of your brother-in-law, John, I am more surprised that your niece is acquainted with this man at all than that she blames him for everything that may be going wrong in her or her sister’s life.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” Charis said with assurance. “Papa always said that Mr Darcy — that is, this Mr Darcy’s father — was the least interested in Court intrigue of any man he knew. That’s why he always loved going to Pemberley. He said it refreshed him more than any other place on earth. I have known his children since forever. Georgiana was to have accompanied me to Gaaldine, but for some reason Papa forbade it at the last moment. He wouldn’t say why. He was very angry, though. He tried to pretend he wasn’t, but I could tell.”
A pale, long-fingered hand reached out and captured the letter. “John. Ring the bell. Recall the courier. Say you have received distressing family news, and wish to know more about how — and from whom — he received the letter. I shall send word to the port to deter the ship’s captain from an early departure.”
Although he was already reaching for the bell, John looked up quizzically. “A niece crossed in love and her sister distracted? Hardly your usual mystery.”
Sherlock’s eyes glittered. “Oh, but it is, John. It so very much is. Ring the bell. The game is afoot.”
“I used to wonder what it would be like to be crossed in love,” Charis murmured. Neither man paid the slightest attention to her.
Even so early in the evening hair pomade, candle-wax, scantly washed human flesh, expensive perfumes and whatever preparations everyone’s maids had deployed to protect stored finery from moths or mould made a roiling, nostril-assailing fug in the ballroom. As she and Mama passed arm in arm across the threshold Frances staggered beneath its assault.
The Crown Prince materialised at her elbow. His first words, unexpectedly, were in English.
“Frances, thank you so much for consenting not to dance this dance with me. Let us sit it out in the arbour. I need to talk to you, and this oh-so-overblown coranto provides the perfect opportunity.”
Through the miasma Lady Anthea signalled imperiously with her fan. Mama dropped Frances’ arm and headed in her direction. Bereft of support, Frances allowed the Crown Prince to guide her to the corner arbour, which had been contrived from evergreen shrubs brought indoors, profligately illuminated with beeswax candles. Their glow was reflected in tiny fountains in the arbour’s heart. Above their heads the casements, blissfully open, spilled cool, pine-scented air into the arbour’s centre. She breathed in, and wished her head could feel as clear as the air.
On All Souls Eve Frances’ world had turned. She was still turning with it. Her companion’s ability to command the calm as well as the tempest was not the least strange part of this new-minted world.
“Improbable as it sounds, it is possible to get used to us,” the Crown Prince said, still in English.
Frances shivered. At Oversbank his facility for hearing the unspoken would have seen fingers crossed and talismans touched against devilry. She summoned her courage enough to speak.
“It hardly feels so. Though, at least, I am acquiring greater facility with the language. Regrettably, perhaps.”
Their carriage had been forced to thrust its way through the mob at the Palace gates. Some of the things shouted at Mama still rang in her ears. She had not meant to allude to them, though.
The Crown Prince smiled, infuriating and knowing.
“Think of it this way. An expansion to one’s vocabulary is rarely wasted, no matter what the source.”
A full glass was at her right hand, though she had not seen the servitor. The chill, delicate white wine came as a relief, more so because she might bury her face in the glass, to defer giving a response.
“It is indeed about language I wished to speak to you. I prefer you to speak English, for preference, or — at a pinch — French when you and my wife talk together. Could you oblige me in this?”
“Why?” The assurance with which she challenged him, here on his own ground, shocked her. Perhaps the world’s topsy-turviness accounted for her unwonted freedom. The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart goes all decorum.
His eyes were cool and assessing.
“Is it not obvious? Charis is likely, in due course, to be Queen of Gaaldine and, should fortune permit, also of Gondal. When that day comes, it will help if she knows as many languages as possible. It is fortunate that chance has thrown two native speakers of a hitherto obscure language which seems to be attaining unexpected commercial importance into our ken.”
Frances sensed a test. As at the dissection, she was acutely anxious in case she failed.
“Since coming to Gaaldine I have met very few people who know more than a word or two of English. Save for our Legation, those have been sailors or traders. I have met none but you and the King at Court.”
“A couple of courtiers have a smattering. But you are correct in your assumption. It is not the most obvious language to learn and knowing it conveys little status.” He waited.
“But if the Princess were seen to be learning it, that would make it fashionable.”
The matter unrolled all at once, like a proof in mathematics. “Oh — unless she were seen as doing it as a favour to someone who was the very reverse of fashionable. Like speaking kitchen Greek to the servants.”
The Crown Prince smiled. “I see you and Sarai have been talking. I thought so. Good. But continue.”
“But there would be no need for that in my case. I can get by tolerably in Gondalian, and my fluency in the language of Gaaldine improves daily.”
“So I have observed. Few others have. You speak little in company and that little is in Latin, for courtesy and for precision. Our language is difficult for outsiders to learn and we, in our arrogance, tell ourselves that not using it betrays ignorance, not choice.”
She chewed over the thought, finding it to have an odd savour.
“Do I understand, your grace, that you wish me to appear to have less facility at speaking your language than I do? And to encourage Ch- your wife to secretly improve her English, so she can converse with you and the King with less risk of being understood by eavesdroppers?”
A slow smile crossed his face. “How fortunate we are that your party decided not to press on to Constantinople. The average intelligence at Court has increased ten per cent at least from the presence of you and Elizabeth.”
The compliment passed by scarcely felt.
“Conversing in secret tongues. You believe there may be a spy in our midst?”
The Crown Prince’s expression was that of a man who had unexpectedly encountered a hippogriff. When he spoke, there was a new note in his voice.
“We live amid a network of spies, both voluntary and paid. Our every move is witnessed. Spies permeate the highest levels of our councils. Exemplum, the Pretender of Gondal knew of King Ambrosine’s proposed marriage treaty before I did. More mundanely, at least fourteen people at this very moment are visibly speculating about what we are discussing.”
Frances’ world lurched. Nevertheless, it gave her an unlooked-for opening. “And what, sir, are we discussing?”
Rather than answer immediately, the Crown Prince reached inside his satin frock-coat and pulled out a soft leather pouch and a pipe.
“Do you mind?”
Frances shook her head.
He lit his pipe, drew deep and blew a smoke ring. Out of the corner of her eye, Frances spotted two beribboned courtiers leaning in towards each other and tittering. She closed her eyes, in the hope it might compose her senses. When she opened them again the Crown Prince had his head on one side, his expression cool and assessing.
“Frances, I have watched you these last months. You appear to have made it your mission to gather as much data as you can about the plants and animals of Gaaldine: at least, so far as the limitations of the season and your own circumstances permit.”
It was hard to respond to such an opening. She did her best. “I aspire to become a natural philosopher. I hope — I hope Aristotle would have approved my methods.”
“He may well do. But it is Herodotos I wish to commend to you at present. He would sit down and listen to stories from every source, whether they be kings, generals, sailors, soldiers, market traders or fishwives. While he heard many lies, tall tales fashioned specially for his hearing, he gained many insights which would not have been his had he adopted less expansive methods. In which light, did you have occasion to hear the songs of the Borders, when you travelled between Gondal and Gaaldine?”
It had not yet been half a year, but it felt like an age. All that remained was confused impression upon confused impression, filtered through her position as the lowest-ranking member of the party save for the servants, hardly able to call either her time or her preferences her own. Diana had hated the music, she remembered. Those wailing cadences and use of minor keys had set off a spiralling whirl of melancholy within the other girl which had inevitably ended — if it did not begin — in an outburst of violent anger. In the end, it had been easiest to avoid the music altogether.
Too complicated to explain, of course. Conventionalities would have to serve.
“I heard a little. I would like to hear more: now my fluency with the language has improved, perhaps I shall understand them better.”
He blew another smoke ring. “Even those who have lived all their lives in the three kingdoms find that difficult. It is not just the dialect, though that is tricky enough. More, it is penetrating into the minds of the songs’ framers. Love and murder wound together endlessly: the bower fair with roses and lilies, beside the midden within which the head of one’s enemy rots. And always, within each story, beings from the other-world watch from the shadows, awaiting the step onto the wrong path or a false answer given to a riddle.”
“You seem to have made them a study, sir.”
“Do you think I should have devoted my time to more courtly music? The polyphonic motets of Lassus, perhaps? I assure you, there are more similarities between the two than you might think.”
He blew out another smoke ring.
“You are right, of course. I have made a study of them. And yet I know less of the inwardness of the matter than Charis, whose cradle music it was. The Moriarty ancestral lands lie in the Borders and if there is one thing those songs teach us, it is that the bitterest feuds are those within a family. Charis is the Pretender’s weak spot and he knows it.”
“But where do I come in?”
The Crown Prince blinked, as if for the first time realising that Frances was not some faceless recipient of his confidences (if confidences they were) but a person in her own right.
“As a true son of the Borders, the Pretender seeks to use John’s kin against him. Not wittingly: the Watson family are loyal to a fault. No doubt that is why they function so much better when separated each from the other. So much high-mindedness is bound to cause friction at close quarters. You need not tell him I said as much.”
“Consider my discretion assured.” Frances tried, without complete success, to keep the corners of her mouth from quirking up.
A tinge of exasperation sounded in his voice. “I did not mean — Oh, by the Holy Virgin, why is it I am so persistently misunderstood?”
Frances paused for a moment, and then decided, all things considered, it was worth the risk. “Perhaps, sir, it is because you do not blunt your sharp wits sufficiently to allow for the dullness of those around you. But what has John’s kin to do with spies?”
“Messages came from Gondal today. John’s niece wrote to him; a commonplace enough account of the doings of her and her sisters. But it jogged Charis’s memory, and, in consequence, I learnt two facts about her wedding journey which I had not known before. In addition to her paid attendants, she was to have been accompanied by a high-ranking female companion of her own age. But both girls chosen for that position withdrew; in the second case, on the express order of the King, the day before she had been due to depart. Furthermore, Charis’ journey was then brought forward a day, at the King’s urgent and most secret command. And two days after that, the Princess’ party was ambushed in the mountains, supposedly by brigands.”
Frances shivered, remembering the precautions the men of their own party had made when they, too, ventured the high passes between Gondal and Gaaldine. That had been high summer. But Charis must have set out with winter snows already on the peaks. Not a time for opportunistic theft.
“Indeed. My party arrived in time to save Charis, but too late for her attendant ladies, and a number of her arms-men. Until earlier today, I believed my delay in setting out was due to the treachery of a single man — Anderson — himself killed in the raid and subsequently found to have been in treasonable correspondence with agents for the Pretender of Gondal.”
“Until today,” Frances repeated. She looked across the ballroom to Charis, dancing with the King’s dry-stick secretary, Fullerton. She had plainly set herself the task of making him lose his composure before the set was out and looked like making good on any bets which might be riding on the outcome.
“Quite. I have spent most of this day in the archives, reviewing the letters Anderson supposedly received from Gondal. Now, I am nine parts certain that they were forgeries, planted among his belongings to be found after his death, to lead us to a false conclusion.”
There had been a blind Fellow of St Jerome’s, so old and withered that it was rumoured he had come up to Oxford as a precocious boy in the reign of the old Queen, Gloriana of fabulous memory. He had taken a fondness for Frances, to whom had been assigned the task of daily reading. When that amusement palled, he had talked of times long ago, when the world was young.
As a boy I was all for fishing. Every chance I got I would play truant, and be away to the river. My masters whipped me for it, often. But when I became a scholar, I realised it is more like fishing than they imagined. Ideas cannot be compelled, any more than trout. One can only watch the stream, free your mind to drift with it and then, where something seems to stir the water, there cast your line.
Frances let her eyes fall shut, the better to allow her mind to float free. The Crown Prince’s voice continued, a low burbling counterpoint to her thoughts.
A chance-caught phrase made her jerk her head up. “Sir, did you say the first girl — I forget her name —”
“Lady Agnes Campbell. What of her?”
“I understood you to say that she left the wedding party at her father’s request? Did her father say why he changed his mind? For surely, he must have consented to her being one of the party in the first place.”
A slow smile broke over the Crown Prince’s face. “A good question. And one, it seems, you and I are the first to ask. Perhaps you owe that to being English.”
“You English celebrate Gunpowder Treason Day, do you not? And you must have heard the story of how it came to be discovered?”
“Did not one of the conspirators write a letter to his cousin, warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament? Oh!”
“Quite. You may be interested to learn that Lady Agnes recently married: highly advantageously, so far as her family’s interest with the Pretender is concerned. As for the lady herself, I suspect she may by now be wondering whether the bandits of the mountains would not have been a better option.”
Frances flinched. “A Faustian bargain. And one it seems the King did not consider: his anger and suspicion seems to have been directed at the second girl alone. But could she have had time to get a message through?”
The Crown Prince’s face lit up. “The very point I have been considering. The short answer is, she could not. At the Gondal end, yes: the party might have been followed. But the ambush into which they walked must have been days in the planning. Our few prisoners told us as much.”
“So it was the first girl who imperilled Charis’s party.”
“So I believe. But I see no reason to doubt King Ambrosine’s belief — evident from his actions — that the second girl was also compromised. But she or her brother must have told the King of their concerns, and that shows no small degree of courage. Or of integrity. It is never easy to bring bad news to kings, especially bad news which includes a confession of fault. Though King Ambrosine mellowed in his latter days, I do not fancy he would have been minded to show mercy, not on that topic, not at that time. My wife, should she hope to take the throne of Gondal, will need to know who among the high nobility can be trusted to put integrity above interest. Here we have a fire-tested example of that very thing. And, piquing my curiosity to a high degree, the brother is mentioned in John’s niece’s letter and by no means in a good light.”
“That might be the merest chance.” Frances did not believe it but, as a natural philosopher, she felt it must be said. The Crown Prince flicked a finger for more drinks and leant forwards.
“Apply the tenets of logic. John’s niece might have written to him at any time, but she chooses now, when war between Gondal and Gaaldine is almost a certainty.”
Sensing she had been cast as advocata diaboli, Frances cleared her throat. “Isn’t that also the most likely time when someone might think of a relative about to be cut off in hostile territory?”
The Crown Prince considered that for a moment. “Indeed. But you will see that all reasons why it is plausible this Elizabeth should have written are equally good reasons why someone might have worked on her to write. But who can that be, that’s the question? I have asked John, and it seems his niece is some two years older than Charis.”
The emphasis he put on her age must be significant. Frances thought for a moment.
“How old was the first girl, or the second?”
“The first girl? Born in the same week as Charis. The second, six months later.”
Eight years ago, when she had been Charis’s age, the gulf between sixteen and eighteen had loomed large. Now, it was nothing. She looked across the ballroom, at the handful of ladies sitting out, and recalled Oversbank dances and similar galleries of disappointed hopes. It was not age, nor looks, nor animation that made the difference between sheep and the goats. Attention was a coin spent by young gallants with as much or greater care than they spent the contents of their purse. She could feel her own worth increasing minute by minute in the eyes of the passing courtiers the longer she spent closeted with the Crown Prince. Attention and admiration, that was the key to it.
“There’s a man involved,” she declared, and blushed. Who was she to make such a confident pronouncement? Indeed, how absurd a pronouncement to make. Espionage and high politics were male preserves: how could there not be a man involved?
To her surprise, she saw nothing but respect in the Crown Prince’s expression.
“You have, I believe, got to the heart of the matter. I do not know who this man — let us call him ‘X’ — may be and I do not wish to prejudice your own views of the matter by describing how I have reached the same conclusion. But I believe at least two, if not all three young ladies may have been the target of X, that he uses gallantry rather than any other weapon and that at least one person in Gondal shares my suspicions of X and, moreover, is in no doubt of his identity.”
“But how can I help?”
“The letter from John’s niece came by an unusual route. The ship carrying it sailed from Elbe, the southernmost port on Gondal’s eastern seaboard. As you would expect, we keep a close eye on all vessels originating from that quarter. The franking on the letter caught my eye immediately. It had been issued under the authority of a very great lady: Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
Frances raised a puzzled eyebrow.
“To quote Charis: the most pestilential, interfering old hag in all of Gondal. As you can probably guess, Lady Catherine’s her relative. Or, to be strictly accurate, connexion. Her sister was Charis’ grandfather’s second wife.”
Not for the first time in this conversation, Frances wished she were in a position to take notes. Still, if her job was now to improve English at the Court, there was only one thing for it. She drew a deep breath and plunged.
“There is an English term: perhaps you have not heard it. For simplicity’s sake, would it hurt if I called her Charis’ great-aunt?”
The Crown Prince gestured with the glowing bowl of his pipe. “‘Great-aunt’? That has the right ring. Indeed, as matters stand in Gondal, you might class her the greatest of aunts. The sister in question, Lady Elaine, was the Pretender’s mother.” After a moment, he added, “Another sister, Lady Anne, was the mother of the second girl. I do not readily believe in coincidences.”
“Oh.” After a moment Frances hazarded, “In both cases, she does not seem to be at all the obvious route through which such a letter would be sent.”
“You spotted that, did you? A minor peculiarity, but very suggestive. Do you know anything of fishing?”
She tried to tell herself it was the neck-wrenchingly abrupt change of subject which caused her blood, for a moment, to run cold. Once she had command of herself she managed to stutter out, “No. Sir.”
“Really? Well, no matter. It is a most imperfect analogy, in any event. But this letter is a line flung out, baited with John’s family feeling. Left to himself, he would send a short, bland response to his niece, shutting down further approaches lest they be diverted or suborned.”
She gulped. “And surely they are likely to be so. But how can I help?”
“I disagree with John about shutting down the correspondence. It is too good an opportunity to miss. We can spread confusion among our enemies, and tease out information they may not suspect they are giving. Accordingly, I need you to do two things. First, I will translate the letter John received. Then, I request you read it: read it as yourself, both in original and translation. Your insights as to what its writer meant are invaluable. You have more in common with John’s niece than any of the rest of us; even more than Charis.”
Frances wondered what that was supposed to mean. No doubt the Crown Prince would expand on it if she enquired further, but equally without doubt she would in the process end up far better informed on the inward life of the Crown Princess’s physician and his relations with his family than either of them could possibly desire.
“And the second thing?”
“That? Yes. Second, I would like you to help me in constructing a reply.”
Her hand stopped halfway to her mouth. With an icy control which she had never suspected she possessed, she said, “A forgery?”
The Crown Prince shrugged. “Words, only. My wife’s safety depends on my taking all necessary steps for her protection, will-I, nil-I. This attack is aimed at Charis. We need to turn it back on itself. I can imitate John’s hand with a facility which would astound you. But I need to sound plausible when writing. And I need to somehow tease out anything John’s niece knows of X. Will you give me assurance of your aid?”
Frances could have said many things. But her life so far had been a narrow thing, like that of a bird’s in a cage, until her uncle had taken them on this grand journey and there died. Her mind had been expanded further since then than she could possibly have imagined.
Her heart caught fire, and rose phoenix-like towards the sun which gave it birth.
“I shall indeed assist you, your grace.”