Chapter Three - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
“We could not have been more unlucky,” Caroline wailed.
Not for the first time, Charles wondered how two children of the same parents could approach the world so differently. Also not for the first time he essayed to resolve his sister’s fears with reason, without the slightest faith in reason’s efficacy.
“Unlucky? The carriage accident was a misfortune, but we have fallen among friends. The family here could not have been kinder.”
He struggled to sit up, by which he hoped to increase his authority. Caroline, who was staring out of the window into the shrubbery, did not notice. His pang of regret for the perfect angel who had attended him that morning, making sure his pillows were plumped and soothing his brow with cool damp cloths, felt almost like disloyalty.
“There is Mr Darcy in the wilderness outside.” Caroline fumbled with the window catch, and succeeded in pushing the casement a creaking few inches open. “Mr Darcy! Mr Darcy!”
Charles slid back under the sheets. Sitting up had done nothing for his shoulder, and the opened window was letting in an unwholesome draught.
“Oh, how provoking.” Caroline turned away from the window. “Before he could acknowledge me, he was accosted by one of those dreadful Duplessis girls. They have turned off together towards that wretched sort of arbour thing.”
Charles’s heart almost stopped. Darcy, so rich, so well-connected: of course he would entrance any angel on whom he chose to look.
“Really?” he croaked.
“Shocking, I agree, how encroaching the whole family are. This was the dark one, you may recall, from last night — no, I forget, you were swooning with pain, how could you have remarked what any of the girls of the house looked like, especially since they were all so — not plain, precisely, apart from that gawky peering one, who had the head ache, but all so blowsy and unpolished. And so loud.”
She shuddered, delicately.
The dark one.
“You mean Lizzie.” He hoped his look of relief was not perceptible to his sister.
Caroline shrugged. “Some such name, I believe. Anyway, Charles, we must contrive to get you to Netherfield today, or tomorrow at the absolute outside. The acquaintance is made and we cannot escape it, but at least we need not deepen it further than we must.”
The last miles of road had been bad, of a badness Charles had not dreamt could exist so close to the capital. He had spent over ten miles wishing he’d had the sense to ride, like Darcy, rather than give in to Caroline’s insistence that he accompany her in the carriage. The accident, when it began, seemed to have the ghastly inevitability of a dream. The thought of trusting himself to those roads so soon after the reseating of his shoulder made him run cold with horror.
At that moment there came a commanding rap on the door. With barely enough time for decency, his hostess entered the room followed by a small, stooped man.
“Mr Bingley,” she said breathlessly, “Mr Perry is here. Although he had a long night of it (a boy, and both doing splendidly) he could not retire to rest without he came to see how you went on. You are to be our neighbour, of course, and you will find that in this part of the country we always look to our neighbours.”
“Do you not find it fatiguing, ma’am, to be so thoroughly overlooked?” Caroline drawled.
“Ma’am, I can testify to the good care I have found here myself. You and your daughters could not have been kinder.” Charles spoke with emphatic sincerity, hoping his sister might take it as her cue to refrain from ill-natured jabs. “But perhaps, ma’am if I might ask you to withdraw with my sister, to permit Mr Perry to make his examinations?”
For a moment, he wondered if his hostess might take affront at the notion that he wanted her handiwork checked. In desperation, he shot a meaningful glance towards the close-stool. Her face cleared.
“Of course, sir, of course. Mr Perry, we will have a glass of my spiced cider waiting for you by the fire when you are done. Come, my dear, let us leave the men to their mysteries.”
He had expected Caroline’s flash of anger at the epithet, but not his hostess’s sly, half-hidden grin at marking it. Mr Perry drew closer to the bedside, fussily rolling up his sleeves.
“Hardly a mystery to one so skilled as you, ma’am. Ah, had you been born a boy, I do not doubt you would have proved a physician equal to your father and brother.”
Caroline’s head went up like a pointer scenting game. She left with unseemly haste. Doubtless, Charles thought with a rare tincture of sourness, she planned to interrogate their hostess about her less-than-genteel antecedents. As if Caroline couldn’t remember coming home in tears from dancing class and being comforted by Father after some slight or other from the aristocratic daughters of Gondal. The Bingleys came of mercantile stock. A physician with a quality professional connection would doubtless have disdained an introduction to their grandparents.
Mr Perry motioned for him to move his shoulder. The effort was excruciating. The little apothecary poked, peered, tapped, made little “tsk” sounds through his teeth and asked a series of questions so frankly personal that Charles was relieved the two of them were alone. At length he nodded permission for Charles to sink back exhausted amid his pillows.
“The shoulder is doing well. An excellent piece of work, sir. I foresee you will be able to rise from your bed by the day after tomorrow.”
From your bed. A wave of relief washed over him. “And travelling?”
The apothecary pursued his lips. “I do not advise you to think of stirring far until we can be quite sure you have taken no internal hurts. Perhaps by the end of the week? The lady of the house told me I must make it clear to you that you need not the smallest scruple in staying as long as you choose, until you are quite well enough to risk travelling without undoing the good work of your recovery.”
“Tell her — tell her I am most grateful.” Weariness threatened to overwhelm him; he blinked against tears. Without fuss, Mr Perry ran a damp cloth over his face, erasing the evidence of weakness.
“I shall call Miss Duplessis. She will make sure you have all you need within reach and settle you for rest. I assure you, sir, she is the best of nurses. I have seen her work wonders among the cottagers. Then, I shall give orders you are not to be disturbed for the rest of the morning.”
Miss Duplessis, his own angel! Of course Mr Perry would have seen her working with the poor. It was one of those things expected of the proprietors of a country estate, but doubtless she would still have done it had she been a cottager’s daughter herself. Of course, neither he nor Caroline had lived in the country before, so it would be important to find out what was proper from one who knew all about it, to avoid giving offence. An excellent thought: it would promote friendship between Caroline and the two elder Duplessis girls, so much to be desired. Naturally the circumstances of their arrival had put Caroline at a disadvantage, the thing in all the world she hated most, but it could all be smoothed out now.
He smiled at Mr Perry. The more intimate parts of his care concluded, he asked if he might prevail upon Miss Duplessis for the infinite favour of a visit.
“And so, Charlotte, we had to put up with all three of them for the best part of a se’ennight. Of all the boiling, Mr Bingley had the best reason for staying put. He needed to see his shoulder recovered from the abuse it had suffered and would not leave until Mr Perry assured him he was fit to travel. His friend Mr Darcy feared that one or the other of us would bewitch his friend were he to turn his back and so he dare not leave. And, of course, Miss Bingley could not leave while her brother was unavailable to act as her protector in this wild and lawless land. Or so, at least, she told us.”
“Oh, Lizzie!” Jane’s voice rang out in loving remonstrance, but her eyes sparkled. “Of course Miss Bingley could not press on to Netherfield alone.”
“Mr Darcy could have taken her,” a new voice broke in.
Charlotte had almost forgotten Lydia, tagging along mulishly at the back of the little group walking into Longbourn village. To be honest, she tried where possible to forget Lydia, less from a sense that she had nothing in common with the youngest Duplessis sister than from an uncomfortable suspicion that they possessed more commonality than it would be politic to let Lizzie or Jane (“her own particular friends”) ever suspect.
As, indeed, here. Charlotte had known what Lydia was driving at before the last syllable was out of her mouth and yet here was Jane, never doubting Lydia to be ignorant of something every girl of their acquaintance would have had drummed into her since she was first out of leading-strings.
“Lydia, don’t be absurd. How could Caroline Bingley stay alone at Netherfield with a man to whom she is quite unrelated? Her reputation would be shattered.”
“He’d have to marry her then,” Lydia persisted. “And then she’d be mistress of that big estate he has in the north parts. Think what jewels and pin money she’d have then.”
“Ssh, Lydia! No-one would think the same of a woman who made a match in such a way. Everyone would be talking about it.”
She’d still be married. Charlotte thought it an instant before Lydia said it aloud. At which the rest of the short walk was occupied with Jane and Lizzie’s loud condemnations of Lydia for saying something so unthinkable, their assurances to Charlotte that their sister was far too young to mean or even to understand what she had said, and Lydia’s noisy rebuttal of both propositions.
Charlotte walked on besides them, and composed her thoughts in silence.
“Unthinkable”. What an odd word. Clearly they had all thought of it, even if three out of four had rejected it out of hand. Not for the same reasons. Charlotte grimaced internally. Jane, of course, was incapable of dissimulation and a paragon of integrity. Charlotte had known her from birth, had watched for years for any crack in the façade, before concluding, reluctantly, that in Jane’s case appearance and self marched hand in hand. Lizzie, though, was quite a different proposition. She reached the same place as Jane through pride, not innate instinct. Since she would never do anything which might make Jane think the less of her the outcome was the same.
But what of Charlotte herself? She had neither pride nor inbuilt virtue protecting her honour, just the cold pragmatism of knowing that it would not answer. Not for a plain woman well past her first flush of youth with an ineffectual father and no connections of credit. One only had to recall what happened to Miss Bates with her “merchant sea captain” who turned out to be merely a master’s mate, and married already, to boot.
She repressed a shudder which she could by no means explain to her companions. They might, perhaps, take it for horror and pity at the destruction of the life of an inoffensive gentlewoman, who had loved not wisely but too well. Charlotte knew it had a deeper and far less creditable cause.
At first, she had been proud that Mama had taken her into her confidence about Miss Bates, treating her for the first time as a woman grown, equal to hearing the stories the married ladies swapped over the negus while they surveyed the dancing from their matronly isolation. It was only in the dark watches of the night that Charlotte had realised the true meaning behind Mama’s disregard of protocol.
Mama thought it a salutary lesson for her ageing, gawky, maiden daughter. A lesson having particular applicability.
No: a man who would take such an offer from a woman of Charlotte’s type would cut and run and neither expect nor receive consequences for doing so.
She looked sidelong at Lydia. Mr Duplessis was known and feared in the neighbourhood for his sharp wit and his eccentricities but she had always sensed an air of defeat about him. Beneath the courtesy and fussiness her own father had much the same air. If Lydia ever staked her body on such a gamble she had best not rely on her father’s help to collect her winnings.
The broken-down cottage reputed to house a witch came into sight round the bend of the road. Charlotte expelled a long-pent breath. “Meryton, at last.”
Lydia looked at her, sourly. “No reason to sound so excited about it. Nothing ever happens in Meryton.”
Towards them drifted the sounds of fife, drum and marching feet.
“Soldiers!” Without a word passing between them, they quickened their pace.
Meryton had been transformed. A company of men were being drilled by the market cross. Another company was digging latrine trenches on the water-meadows below the church. Teams of men, stripped to the waist but nevertheless sweating in the unseasonable heat, dragged field pieces into the incipient camp. A quartermaster with an outsize roll of paper directed carters towards Farmer Armstrong’s tithing barn. Farmer Armstrong himself stood on the corner, arms folded, looking like a man who had already lost one argument that morning but would not let that stop him having another should opportunity present. The landlord of Meryton’s principal inn was locked in remonstrance with a bored-looking ensign. Off to the side the prettiest of his serving maids, her dress half-off one shoulder, sat on the way stone which proclaimed that Gondal Town was 8 leagues away, weeping quietly to herself.
Lizzie looked up and down the main street. “We have been invaded, it seems.”
Jane’s brow furrowed, but Charlotte instantly took Lizzie’s meaning. Meryton had already been almost overset with the excitement of the newcomers to Netherfield Hall. It seemed improbable the town could manage the additional excitement of a regiment’s being quartered in the district without incalculable harm.
Lydia ignored her elders, exclaiming about each fresh sighting of an officer and eventually losing herself so far as to actually point.
“There, look there. The officer on that magnificent black horse. Surely he must be the colonel?”
“Only if we can suppose his godfather to have given him his regiment as a christening present.” Lizzie smiled sidelong at Charlotte.
“Such things have indeed been known in the Army,” Charlotte said, playing along. “I recall Mrs Long saying once there was a Surgeon-General took up his post when he was no more than three-and-twenty. Surely that must have gone by favour of someone, so why not a godparent?”
The silence which fell between Jane and Lizzie had its own texture: hard and spiky. As so often at home, Charlotte felt the tight, unhappy clenching in her insides that told her she had, once again, been clumsy. Not the physical clumsiness of her sister Maria, but a more profound mental clumsiness, where she could not see what she had tripped over even when she was (metaphorically speaking) on the floor feeling for bruises.
“Miss Lucas! Miss Duplessis and Miss Elizabeth!” Mrs Long’s voice was unmistakable. “And Miss Lydia,” she added by way of afterthought and to no effect whatsoever. Lydia was exclaiming after gold epaulettes again, paying no attention to anything female.
In the instant it took to turn to face the new arrival and greet her formally, Charlotte realised two things with absolute clarity. First, Mrs Long loathed the Duplessis family with the kind of unreasoning, deep-rooted hatred Charlotte herself felt for spiders. Secondly, both Lizzie and Jane were aware of her loathing and in their different ways it bothered them profoundly. Jane’s expression was one of blind, bewildered unhappiness, like a dog whipped after its fault, incapable of linking cause and effect. Lizzie, by contrast, gritted her teeth in a smile which was more like a grimace.
Charlotte assumed her sweetest smile. “Mrs Long, this is a happy chance. We were just saying how well informed you are in regard to matters military. Whose regiment is this? And how long are they to stay?”
Mrs Long opened and shut her mouth like one of the ornamental carp in the great fountain at Haye-Park. At which moment a man’s voice broke in.
“Madam. How fortunate it is that I should encounter you. I am bid by my colonel to present his compliments and heartfelt thanks for the hospitality you extended to him, to myself and to my fellow officers last night. Your servant, ma’am.”
Charlotte caught an impression of a mobile, amused mouth, very white teeth and a mop of black curls, before the young officer bent in the deepest of bows. Her face a mask of resentment, Mrs Long dipped an answering curtsey.
“Ma’am — much to ask, I grant you, but might you do me the inestimable favour of an introduction to your fair companions? We are, as you know, to be quartered here all winter, and our standing orders require us to promote and strengthen the ties between His Grace’s armies and his loyal subjects, whom we are sworn to defend, by all means at our disposal.”
Despite herself, Charlotte cast a sideways glance towards the way stone. The barmaid’s head had sunk into her hands, the bored ensign had found duties elsewhere and the landlord was patting her uneasily on the shoulder, with the expression of a man who would rather be anywhere but here.
Mrs Long pursed her lips and admitted defeat. “Miss Duplessis, Miss Elizabeth Duplessis, Miss Lydia Duplessis and Miss Lucas. May I present Lieutenant George Wickham, of the Duke of Malham’s Own Regiment of Foot?”
“You are quite sure about this?” Darcy asked again.
“My shoulder is perfectly able to withstand holding the reins of the most placid mare in my stables for a short trot to Meryton and back. Your concern does you credit, but it is not needed. Please, take your Sultan for your customary gallop in the park, and leave me to manage my own errands.”
That came out more testy than he had planned. Perhaps the nagging pain in his shoulder had sharpened his tone.
For once, Darcy’s expression lacked its customary assurance. “It was not your shoulder of which I was thinking.”
“Of what, then?”
The messenger had come to Netherfield as they sat at breakfast. Ever since, Charles had been on edge, acutely aware that this was unfamiliar territory and so the chances of his making an utter fool of himself were even greater than normal. The last thing he wanted was a witness to whatever idiocy he might be about to perpetrate.
Darcy pursed his lips and jerked his head towards his groom. “Brock, I’ve a concern about Sultan’s off-fore. Pray take a look. There seems to be a tenderness there, from how he was standing.”
The groom nodded, and moved off to the far end of the stable-block, leaving Charles and Darcy alone.
Even so, Darcy dropped his voice. “There is nothing you could do otherwise than what you are doing, since Armstrong is a tenant on the Netherfield estate. But have a care. It may be no more than an over-officious young officer exceeding his brief and doing so with scant courtesy. But be alert, in case it is someone who — seeks an occasion.”
“An occasion?” Charles’ wits floundered, his mind running on balls and fetes. Abruptly, he made a connection. “You mean, for a duel?”
His voice came out absurdly high and squeaky.
Darcy shook his head impatiently. “No, not a duel. Though if it is Moran’s regiment it might come to that. A regiment takes its temper from its commander, as a fish rots from the head. But no. An occasion to make an example of the town as a hotbed of disloyalty and sedition.”
Charles felt his jaw gape open. His friend paid him no attention. He made a flat, final gesture with the edge of his right hand.
“Does it not occur to you to wonder why a regiment should be overwintered on Meryton, of all places?”
It had not. Matters of military policy had never concerned him. Even in the days of playing toy soldiers he had grown bored with the march and counter-march which enthralled his cousins, and instead sent picked men from his leaden legions on voyages of exploration into far lands in Africa and the Indian Ocean.
None of which Darcy could possibly find of interest.
“No,” he choked.
“No? Neither do three out of five of the gentry of Gondal; there’s no singularity in it. But consider the lie of the land. We are to the north of Gondal Town, so this regiment cannot be planned against an incursion from Gaaldine, still less from Angria. Even if it were placed to protect the capital, there are towns half as close again who could rise quicker to her defence. No. I can think of one reason only. And it troubles me.”
“That being?” Charles was not sure he wanted to know. The bleakness in Darcy’s voice could have scoured the fertile wheat-plains of Grunador to bare, barren rock.
“Some twenty-five years ago my Aunt Elaine died at Netherfield Park. She died Lady Elaine Hooper, but had she lived, had she not made her scandalous second marriage, she would now be the Princess Dowager, first-ranked lady in Gondal, at least until the King chooses to wed.”
So that was why —
Charles’ thoughts swung back to that tense evening in Darcy’s townhouse, when he had first mentioned taking a lease of the place and Darcy had first been wholly opposed then withdrawn his objections in the face of Caroline’s fulsome endorsement. But why had Darcy not said what irked him at the time? Also, when one came to look at it, it was absurd. One could hardly avoid a house because some relative, however well-connected, had died there, especially if one were a great gentleman of Gondal, with an ancestral seat. Generations of Darcys must have died and been laid to rest at Pemberley.
Aloud, he said, “But to hold such a resentment against a place —”
Darcy made an impatient “tsk” sound. “Not just the place. At least, not just for that reason.”
Charles’ raised eyebrows invited further explanation. His friend looked up and down the stable block. Brock was still engaged in a tense, low-voiced convocation with the chief stableman over Sultan’s off-fore. Darcy dropped his voice even further.
“The world knows that on Crown Prince Gerald’s death my aunt remarried beneath her and so was expelled from Court circles and disowned by my family.”
The first, Charles had indeed known, and the second at least made sense of Caroline’s relentless hints.
Darcy drew a deep breath, like a man nerving himself to have a tooth drawn.
“Since this is a family matter, I would be obliged for your assurance, as a gentleman and as my friend, that this goes no further?”
Darcy was famously reticent about private matters. Charles nodded, wordlessly. Then, feeling more was required, he extended his hand and gripped Darcy’s wrist.
“My silence. Of course.”
For a moment, Darcy paused. He looked once again towards the groom and the stableman, who were now, apparently, considering the merits of a compress and getting somewhat excitable about it. He began to speak rapidly, still in the same undertone, so Charles had to strain to hear.
“My Aunt Elaine died in childbed and left her widower, my uncle, to raise their daughter. That, too, is well-known. However, what is less known is that he remained bitter about his late wife’s treatment at Prince Gerald’s hands during her first marriage.”
Darcy’s voice shook a little, and small wonder. The Crown Prince of Gondal, dead these thirty years, had been by repute a monster. Who could say what truths underlying the lurid legends were known to the Royal family and their connexions? Charles’ wealth had gained him the entrée into polite society but the higher reaches of Court still eluded him, much to Caroline’s frustration.
“How did he show his bitterness?” Charles asked, when the silence into which Darcy had fallen threatened to engulf them both.
His friend blinked, and looked up, as if he had indeed been almost beyond reach. “Netherfield Park lies an easy distance from Gondal Town. People came to him. And he spoke to his neighbours. So, by the time his Grace Ambrosine XVI died, a new party had arisen, a party pressing for the King’s daughter Princess Felicia to take the throne in her own right and exclude Prince Gerald’s sons altogether. Netherfield Park was that party’s stronghold: almost, one might say, its headquarters.”
Once again, Charles found himself feeling that a little less reserve on his friend’s part might conduce towards fewer complications all round.
“But King Ambrosine XVII did inherit. And he was known as the very pattern of a monarch.”
Even as the banality left his lips, Charles wondered if it was even partially true. For all he knew Prince Gerald’s elder son might have been worse than his father, just better at hiding the fact. No: here was Darcy nodding, acknowledging his point.
“His late Grace grew into kingship, everyone agrees. Further, it was greatly to his credit that he had, from the time he reached years of discretion, taken steps to distance himself from his father. But my father and my uncle, the Earl of Ula, always said it was a very near thing. Had Princess Felicia not announced her willingness to marry her cousin, had she sought an alliance with Gaaldine or Angria, as the Modernist Party urged, it might well have ended in civil war or, worse, in our annexation by Gaaldine.”
No-one had ever thought Charles was clever; not his father, his tutors and most certainly not his sisters. Nonetheless, with a bone-deep certainty, he understood what Darcy had not put into words, which he had made sure Charles alone heard. For here was another son of Prince Gerald newly on the throne; here was the late King’s and Queen’s daughter allied by marriage to Gaaldine, and here — the solidest and most concrete of proofs — troops on their very doorstep and more on the move.
“King James or his advisors fear history may repeat itself? Here?”
Darcy gave a short, chopped nod. “So walk warily.”
He inhaled, and looked down at the note he had received from his tenant. “I’ll not see Armstrong cheated, no matter what high politics may be behind it. I owe him that. But I shall take care.”
For a moment, Darcy paused, considering. Then, he turned to his groom.
“Brock, I shall not ride Sultan today. Saddle me Zenobia, instead. Mr Bingley has errands in Meryton and I shall accompany him. Let’s give that leg a compress and then time to rest.”
The flood of relief felt like weakness. Nonetheless, Charles drew himself up straighter. “Thank you.”
They rode the two miles to Meryton in almost total silence. Charles worried over what he would say to whichever officer had commandeered Armstrong’s barn. As for Darcy, the whole world knew that Darcy would be hung and drawn before speaking of family matters. That he had come so far beyond his habit was as if the moon had danced in her courses. Small wonder he had no energy to make conversation.
It turned out to be unexpectedly easy to deal with Armstrong’s problems. Once Darcy loomed menacingly over the ensign in question and uttered magical phrases such as the King’s army in Gondal is guest in the King’s land and an insult to the loyal subjects of the King is a direct insult to the Crown the ensign buckled and summoned a captain. The captain looked stern and efficient and summoned two sergeants.
After that, things moved like lightning. Within no time at all, a team of soldiers were being directed to erect partitioning in the disputed barn to keep the respective stores of grain separate against future argument. Talk was being had of roofing two disused outbuildings to free up yet more storage space for both parties against the winter.
Long before Charles took Darcy’s hint that their presence was no longer needed, the more burly of the sergeants and Armstrong were getting on famously over matters of protection of grain from rats.
They ambled along the main street, their horses on a loose rein. Charles felt his heart lurch within him and a second later identified the cause. The fair-haired girl standing amid a group of women talking to one of the officers was indeed his own angel, not merely someone bearing an uncanny resemblance. He spurred his horse forward, hoping that something could be contrived from the formalities of neighbourly civility: perhaps an invitation to the ladies to take tea at Netherfield, if Caroline could be cajoled into doing the honours.
He was vaguely conscious of Darcy riding beside him, pacing him stride for stride, but most of his attention was concentrated on Miss Duplessis. How close should he come before addressing her? Thirty strides was an ungenteel distance, one would have to bellow. But he needed to acknowledge their presence and shorten rein before they took him for some rash hobbledehoy trying to scare them into leaping for safety. Already the officer with the little group was looking up, watching their approach with visible concern.
At Charles’ side, Darcy pulled his mare to a dead stop. Had he been riding Sultan, the manoeuvre might have turned into a full pesade. Startled, Charles halted his mare with much less grace. They stood in silence, looking at the little group. Miss Duplessis’ mouth widened in a ‘O’; initially an ‘O’ of pleased surprise, but changing rapidly to alarm. Charles’ eyes flicked sideways. Darcy was staring straight at the young officer, who stared back in turn. It reminded Charles of two dogs facing off against each other, with fur due to fly any moment.
After a pause which seemed to last for a thousand years, Darcy raised his whip to his hat, barely. The officer, in turn, raised his own hand in reciprocation. Then Darcy turned his mare’s head with a savage emphasis which made Charles fear both for her mouth and for his friend’s state of mind. He had time only for a despairing and apologetic glance over his shoulder in the general direction of Miss Duplessis, before his mare plunged after her stable-mate.