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

The weather remained clear long after the winter storms should have started. “King’s weather,” said Lady Lucas, who was inclined to be sentimental about the dark-haired prince who had so recently become a king. “A green winter makes a fat churchyard,” Aunt Phillips muttered.

“The roads will be open from Gondal Town,” Mama said. “Your Uncle and Aunt Gardiner and the children will be able to come to us for Christmastide.”

Papa rolled his eyes. “Ah. A little quiet cheerfulness is in store for us, I see. Perhaps I shall have the carpenters run up thicker doors and shutters for my library, so my ears are not to be deafened altogether.”

He smiled, though. His wife’s cousin and her family were favourites of both Elizabeth’s parents. Jane looked up from the embroidery at which she had been working with listless diligence, and essayed a weak grin: a pale imitation of her normal spirits. At the sight, Elizabeth was forced to run upstairs to their room and compose herself, a task which took no small effort.

If only that unspeakable Caroline Bingley and the even more unspeakable Mr Darcy had not destroyed Jane’s happiness. Jane would never marry Bingley now. A different union would shortly be upon them, for Mr Collins would return to them in the first week of January, marry Charlotte and take her away with him to his grace-and-favour house in Hunsford, the village belonging to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate, there to be pawed at by his limp-fish hands and bear his children.

So this was what it came to, in the end, for ladies of small fortune. Worse even than being sold into the seraglios of the Sultan or of his pashas. At least in that case one would have sisters in misfortune.

More than either Mr Darcy or Miss Bingley, though, she blamed the King. The King who, like Mr Collins, would be nobody if the law were not set against women inheriting any semblance of power. The King whose relationship with Mr Darcy had puffed the latter up with so much pride that he could not bear for his friend to be connected to a girl from a minor family of country gentry, whose grandfather was a physician and whose uncle was a country attorney.

The walls of their room compressed her like the jaws of a vise. Elizabeth’s hands clenched into fists. Had Jane married Mr Bingley, Elizabeth too could have escaped this place. From their earliest days, they had always promised each other that whoever married first would always find a space for the other in their new home.

“Even when I elope with a cottager, the loft above the cow stall will always be yours,” Elizabeth had joked.

Now both were tied to a Longbourn where their mother’s simmering resentment over her multiple disappointments all too often erupted into lachrymose outbreaks of self-pity, met with cutting sarcasm or speaking silence from their father. It was like walking through a powder magazine.

All because that odious Mr Darcy had connections to the King. Well. He was not the only one with Royal connections. Since her talk with Wickham, Elizabeth had been thinking long and hard about her Uncle John. Her memories were old but vivid. He had been the one reassuring constant in the stormy turmoil of her childhood. Now he, too, was in exile.

Elizabeth sat up and reached for her portable writing desk. Wickham had been right. It was her plain duty to send Uncle John a letter. How she might contrive to get it into Gaaldine was another day’s problem. For now, writing was the thing. Writing letters to one’s relations was one of the few respectable solitary occupations a lady could claim. Let her avail herself of it, then.

“I think, Lizzie, when we return we shall try to prevail upon Jane to accompany us to Gondal Town.”

The weather continuing clear and dry, though the nip of frost tingled fingers and toes, Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner were taking a turn about the grounds of Longbourn.

“The very thing! I have been wishing so hard for Jane to have a little distraction. Here, all our walks remind us of Bingley, and Mama —”

Mrs Gardiner nodded, before Elizabeth could finish the sentence. “Harriet always chatters when she’s upset. I know it relieves her feelings, and Jane is not the kind of girl to let her mother know how deeply it wounds her. It will be better for them to be apart until time has healed matters somewhat. But I trust, Lizzie, that no consideration with respect to this young man will affect Jane’s decision as to whether she travels back with us or not. We live in such a different part of town, and move in such very different circles that there is no likelihood that their paths will cross, unless the young man himself wishes it.”

“Impossible! Mr Darcy has such influence over his friend he would never allow Mr Bingley to sully himself by venturing into the mercantile quarters of town, even if he knew where to find them.”

“Good. I very much hope they will not meet at all.” Mrs Gardiner surveyed the tree-lined walk down which they were promenading. They were alone, but she dropped her voice nonetheless. “I would not say this to anyone but you, Lizzie. I know the match if considered on a material basis was more than eligible, and that Jane’s heart is very much engaged. Nor do I know anything to the discredit of the man himself, or of his friend.”

“But?” Elizabeth enquired. There was most assuredly a ‘but’ coming.

“As matters stand, I would not happily see any relative of mine brought so near the King, still less a gentle, sheltered girl such as Jane. Mr Darcy is the King’s own cousin. The wife of Mr Darcy’s closest friend would, of necessity, be brought into the highest of Court circles.”

The thought that even her own aunt thought them unworthy to mix with the aristocracy of Gondal stabbed like a knife. “And why should Jane not be an ornament to those circles as she is at home? My mother was a lady of the bedchamber to the Queen; my grandfather and uncle Royal physicians. Even now, my uncle is at the Court of Gaaldine, the Princess Charis’ most trusted companion.”

“And those very facts would put Jane in all the more danger: especially the last. Have you no inkling why his late Grace chose to marry his daughter into a family which could put thirty thousand troops into the field should anyone challenge the match?”

The shock at her aunt’s unwonted sharpness must have shown on Elizabeth’s face, because the older woman stretched out a hand and patted her shoulder.

“Forgive me, my dear: I should not have snapped. It has been an uneasy time in Gondal Town since the old King’s death. Each day that passes brings fresh rumours, none of them good. The old guard at Court are in rout. Those who have replaced them test the limits of their new powers and find (at least, while they enjoy the King’s favour) that for them limits do not exist.”

Elizabeth reminded herself it was all of a piece with Mr Darcy’s cavalier assumption that he could ignore his father’s bequest of a competency to Mr Wickham and the King’s justices would not lift a finger to assist the injured party. Perhaps, she thought with angry scorn, that story itself was common gossip in Gondal Town.

“This is so very shocking, I had not an idea of it. Are there any specific instances you can recount?”

“Indeed I can, and on the best authority. One of my husband’s business correspondents (Italian merchants, though the family is of Spanish origin, I believe) wrote to him recently. The poor man was quite distracted. His only daughter had been induced to leave her family’s protection and put herself into the power of one of the King’s inner circle, a lord with a terrible reputation, exiled for years by King Ambrosine. The Italian merchant hoped my husband might be able to reach out to send a message to his daughter so she knew her friends still cared for her and would receive her should she leave this lord’s protection. He tried his best, but all attempts to pass that message failed. In the end Mr Gardiner found himself confronted — positively confronted — by masked bravos with cudgels who made it quite clear what he might expect if he continued to stick his nose into his Lordship’s affairs.”

“How terrible! That poor girl. But tell me, aunt—”

Mrs Gardiner’s hand tightened on Elizabeth’s arm. Thus forewarned, she turned to meet her mother with a suitably composed expression.

Mrs Gardiner smiled at her cousin. “Harriet, how opportune. I have been regaling Lizzie with tales of the water-sprites and kelpies of the lake-country of north-west Gondal. I hoped to whet her appetite for the place. Mr Gardiner and I propose a tour there in the summer, and, if you can spare her and Lizzie has no dislike for the plan, we should very much like her to make one of the party.”

Mama sniffed. “Why you should waste your consideration on such a heedless, ungrateful girl is beyond me. But of course she may accompany you if you wish to take her. She is so headstrong that I don’t doubt that even if I were to say no, she would ignore me completely and go with you come what may. So have her and good riddance. But now, will you come inside? I am sure you must be frozen, and if you are both driven into your beds with fever and chills, who but me will be put to running up and down stairs at all hours with compresses and febrifuges? Also, Mr Wickham and Colonel Forster have arrived to pay a call. Colonel Forster is to be wed within six weeks and has come to invite us to the ball which the regiment throws to welcome his bride. Oh, why does everyone conspire to thrust their wedding plans into my face?”

Mrs Gardiner smiled. “Surely, Colonel Foster must have planned his wedding for no other purpose but to irritate you. You should feel flattered, Harriet, that you can still inspire a young man to take so serious and life-changing a step upon such a comparatively slight acquaintance.”

For a moment, Mama’s expression remained stony. Then, it broke apart in a broad grin. “Penelope, if only you could stay with us forever. You always lift my spirits when you come. Now, take my arm. Lizzie will introduce you to the Colonel and dear Wickham and I shall procure hot spiced wine, to stave off the risk of your having taken cold.”

The admiring glances from both young officers as Elizabeth entered the drawing room told her the frost outside had heightened her colour and sent a sparkle to her eyes. The great gilt-framed mirror over the chimney breast confirmed it. Wickham, in particular, regarded her with an intensity which made her regrets at the loss of his inheritance even more poignant.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mrs Gardiner glance from her to Wickham. Elizabeth had inwardly scorned her mother’s obtuseness and her father’s detachment alike, but it occurred to her now she had also relied on them. Having someone take an intelligent interest in her innermost concerns was a new sensation, and not so wholly desirable as she had once believed.

She introduced the officers to Mrs Gardiner, and the ensuing conversation flowed with more animation and more real taste and wit than the drawing room had witnessed in many months. Even above his usual qualities, Wickham possessed one singular charm. Mrs Gardiner had spent the best part of her youth in the village of Lambton, not five miles distant from Pemberley. In talking over familiar scenes, describing the many recollected excellencies of the late Mr Darcy and reminding each other of local tales and gossip, they found much mutual enjoyment. The gentlemen stayed for dinner as a matter of course, and Wickham in particular formed an essential element of the numerous parties of pleasure Mama organised for her cousins during the next seven days.

On the morning of the Gardiners’ departure, Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner found themselves alone together in the smaller upstairs drawing room. Elizabeth’s suspicion that this was not by chance crystallised when Mrs Gardiner began with the following words:

“I have too much faith in your judgment, Lizzie, to fear that you will fall in love simply because you are warned against it, so I can speak openly. Your friend Wickham seems a most interesting young man; had he the fortune he deserves, I could hardly suppose you could do better. But, Lizzie, you must know he does not have that fortune.”

“Thanks to that odious Mr Darcy, he does not.”

Mrs Gardiner pursed her lips. “Hush, Lizzie. However true that observation may be, it is one better not made aloud. Not when it concerns the King’s cousin. In any event, it is not entirely that loss which lies against Mr Wickham when one considers him as a husband. His current profession, dashing as it may seem, is not one I would like to see any young friend marry into, especially not at the present time. It is almost a certainty we shall have war during the coming year, perhaps before summer is out.”

Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed hot.

“In war, an active, gallant officer may distinguish himself and rise to great heights, however much his earlier life may have been marked by hardship.”

“Lizzie, Lizzie! One in five hundred officers — each equally gallant, equally active — may do so. But such a rise takes luck, as much or more as it takes skill and address. The luck, for example, to serve in a regiment whose commander is in official favour, and who can therefore expect to have his commendations of his junior officers listened to and acted upon appropriately.”

Elizabeth’s brows drew down. “You fear Colonel Forster may be in poor odour with the Court?”

Mrs Gardiner shook her head. She rose to her feet, opened the main door to the landing, and then, similarly, opened the servants’ entrance which was concealed behind a screen in one corner. Only once these precautions were complete did she resume.

“It is not Colonel Forster of whom I speak but of the regiment’s commander-in-chief, the Duke of Malham. My husband has had a hint from a correspondent in town, a reliable man, close to the inner workings of the Court. It would seem that the Duke of Malham stands on shaky ground at present. The King showed most cold to him at a recent levee. Many noted the Duke did not make one of the Royal party at Christmas morning Mass. It is given out by his people that an old tertian fever has flared up, but those who read such signs and portents daily wonder if the next step will be a summons to the Catiff’s Tower.”

Elizabeth shuddered. Many were the tales of those who had entered the dungeons beneath the Catiff’s Tower over the long centuries since its building. Those taken might never appear again or emerge years later, broken beyond all mending.

A tendril of suspicion touched her mind. Could this new assault on Wickham’s fortunes also be laid at Mr Darcy’s door? She stifled that suspicion with what she intended to be robust fairness. Surely a Duke of Malham must be engaged in high politics, far beyond her ken, and Mr Darcy, proud and resentful as she knew him to be, would not stoop so low as to further harm a man whose hopes he had already blackened.

She shivered, as if to shake off ill-fortune as a dog shakes water.

“I see it would be imprudent in me to fall in love with Mr Wickham, or he with me. But what or when has prudence ever had to do with love? How can I promise to be wiser than my fellow mortals? What, indeed, is prudence in such a case? Suppose he were to make me an offer today — I have no expectation he will do such a thing, but suppose he did — and I refused him because of want of fortune, perhaps seven years from now all would pity me for having scorned a man destined to become a dashing young colonel, high in Court favour and loaded with the wealth of his conquests.”

“And if you accepted and found yourself that same seven years later with five children and a husband crippled by wounds and unable to work? We are not talking of fancied futures, Lizzie, but of the here-and-now. At least, you could refrain from encouraging him to be here so often. If he truly cares for you, it is unkind to tantalise a man who knows he cannot honourably propose marriage to a woman he is unable to support. I would think less of him were he to do so.”

“Mama would not. You heard her last night, when you were reading aloud. All for love and the world well lost.”

Mrs Gardiner smiled. “You should not assume, Lizzie, that conduct someone applauds in a play is likely to be welcome if translated into the domestic circle.”

Her aunt’s face became serious. “Harriet learned romance late in life. As a girl, she was all for the prudential motive. And your mother, as you know, is never less than whole-hearted about anything.”

Even her inconsistencies. Aloud, Elizabeth said, “But really, and upon my honour, I will try to do what I think to be the wisest; and now I hope you are satisfied, Aunt.”

“I am indeed. I know your good sense, Lizzie, and I am confident you will apply it. But now I shall leave you to say your farewells to Jane.”

A mere ten days later and it was her friend to whom Elizabeth was obliged to say goodbye.

Melancholy as it was to know Charlotte bound to such a companion for as long as they both should live, it was still a relief to think of Mr Collins dwindled into an innocuous cousin, resident almost twenty leagues away.

The boxes had been packed before the ceremony, the wedding breakfast consumed down to the last crumb. The carriage horses stamped at the gates of Lucas Lodge. Mr Collins and Papa stood awkwardly on the front steps, all that could possibly be said having already been said twice over. Papa clearly knew it, though Mr Collins was volubly impervious.

Charlotte caught Elizabeth’s hand and pulled her into the small drawing room.

“Lizzie, you will promise to write, most often and most particularly, won’t you?”

“Of course, I —-”

“And another thing. My husband and I speak as one in this matter.” That came with another of Charlotte’s awkward, blotchy flushes. Elizabeth’s insides clenched in sympathetic embarrassment.

“My father and my sister Maria come to visit me in March. Would you — dare I hope that you might make one of the party? It would mean a great deal to me.”

Elizabeth could only accept with becoming gratitude and hope something — war with Gaaldine, the end of the world, Mr Collins being struck by a lightning bolt — would prevent her having to make good on it. Though, since she must pass through Gondal Town, it would at least give her an opportunity to see Jane. Although no words of unhappiness appeared in Jane’s letters, her lack of her normal spirits came off each page like a miasma. Elizabeth would give much for an opportunity to see for herself and hear the opinions of the more sensible part of her family.

Mentions of family reminded her of another task still to do. She had thrust the still-unsent letter to Uncle John into her reticule before they had left Longbourn for church that morning.

“Stay here, just a moment, I have a favour I would beg of you.”

“Anything,” Charlotte breathed. Tears stood in the corners of her eyes. Elizabeth’s conscience struck her a sharp blow, but she persisted, nonetheless.

“I collect from the map my cousin showed us last night after dinner, your new home is an easy distance from the south-eastern ports?”

“Indeed. Elbe lies a little over four leagues away. When you come to us in spring perhaps we may be able to make up a party of pleasure to the coast. I have never seen the sea and I believe you have not, either?”

“I have not. That sounds delightful. But I was wondering — as you know, my uncle is at present in Gaaldine, and the landward routes are shut for the winter. I wish to send Uncle John a letter and hoped it might be possible to contrive to send it by sea. Could you enquire, when you reach Hunsford, and let me know if you have been able to send it?”

Charlotte gave her all the assurances a friend could give, especially a friend on the brink of parting from home, who seemed acutely aware of the chasm which her marriage had opened up between her and the Duplessis family. However unlovely Charlotte’s husband, he was the heir apparent of Longbourn, and a more sensible woman than Mama would surely find the prospect of being supplanted by a girl she had known from the cradle more than she could reasonably bear.

The letter was handed over, the die was cast, and Elizabeth watched the carriage rattle away round the bend of the south-bound road.