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

“Sir! Read this! Read it at once — it arrived by express from Hunsford, and the courier waits below to take our answer by return.”

For one iota in time Harriet saw Clarence open, unguarded, vulnerable. The thousand agonising thoughts that had gone through her own mind when the courier galloped in (two daughters from home, a brother in a hostile land) she saw mirrored in Clarence’s face. Then, abruptly, the shutters came down. It was all she could do not to cry aloud from sheer frustration. It was her own fault, though. Papa had tried to warn her, years ago, when Clarence had gone to him to ask for her hand.

“I will not refuse my consent, if you truly want to marry him. He is a respectable man of good fortune and estate and I believe truly esteems you. But love — when you loves someone, love them truly, you strip off a layer of your skin. One who loves fully exposes themselves to the most intense pain imaginable.”

From his expression, Harriet had known he was remembering Mama, and the terrible last weeks of her illness.

“There are many successful marriages that do not require that sort of love. The parties rub along together very well. But where one whose temperament it is to expend themselves to the last drop of blood is yoked to a partner of a colder, more reserved nature, the yoke chafes sorely, and the wounds it produces fester.”

Even back then, Harriet had enough self-knowledge to understand she could never have a last-drop-of-blood love for any man. Still, Clarence Duplessis had never struck her as the passionate sort, either. It was his dry wit and reserve, in a Court not noted for either, which had attracted her in the first place. She told herself that she and Clarence Duplessis could easily achieve the sort of easy companionship that Papa described. What she had not expected was for his cool detachment to be applied to their children, even to Lizzie, his favourite. When Jane and Lizzie had had the scarlet fever, Harriet had sat up with them night after night, while Clarence barricaded himself into his library. She had realised then what underlay his coolness. It was fear.

It was not, as her father had hinted, that he lacked the capacity for love. As Harriet had found out during those hot, agonised, stinking nights, Clarence could love as deeply as any man on Earth. But he knew the pain love could bring, and in the final extremity he shrank from it.

Now she saw that quality again. She thrust the letter towards him. “Read it. Read it. We are to answer within the next quarter turn. And what are we to answer?”

He adjusted his eyeglasses, polished them, read and read again. Her every nerve crawled at his delay. The courier had, on her order, been taken down to the kitchens, expansively fed and given their best ale. Nonetheless, an answer must be written soon, and if Clarence had a genius, it was for procrastination.

At length he looked up.

“Lizzie asks if we have her permission to travel to a villa near Elbe, to enjoy a week of sea air with Miss Molly Hooper, the first lady of the land. Mrs Collins is to accompany them.”

Clarence’s voice sounded as if he could barely comprehend what he had read. Harriet, despite having had half a turn to digest the letter’s contents, sympathised.

“It seems Mrs Collins is invited in the character of Lizzie’s chaperone. Is that better, one wonders, than being invited in her own right?”

Clarence wrinkled his nose.

“At least, that she is by virtue of the fact one remove distant from James of Gondal.”

Harriet exhaled. She had not expected Clarence to express her fear aloud.

“I cannot see Miss Hooper, daughter of Sir Vernon Hooper of Netherfield, in the role of procuress Royal,” she hazarded, by way of whistling in the dark.

His brows drew down and his lips pursed, as if he was about to make some cutting remark, but after a moment he gave an acknowledging shake of his head.

“Nor I. She was always a quiet, biddable child. Intelligent, also. Her father would set her chess problems to work through while he and I played.”

“I trust she played better chess than harpsichord,” Harriet murmured, despite herself. For one fleeting moment Clarence’s lips twitched and she saw again the man she had married. Then the shutters came down again.

“She was an admirable chess player, especially for a girl and for one so young. That is a two-edged blade. Her skill is doubtless a family trait and King James plays chess with human lives. Nor have I ever heard of his being bested.”

I have. She almost said it aloud. But it was not her story to tell, she had no proof, and, besides, Clarence would not believe her. It gave her an idea, nonetheless.

“In that case, our answer is clear. Whether this is a scheme of the King or the simple kindness of a former neighbour, we must accept on Lizzie’s behalf: to do otherwise would be to put ourselves in open enmity. He may be waiting for such a thing.”

“My dear, I am sure his grace has more claims on his time than to squander it on paying off decades-old scores against minor country gentry.”

Harriet gritted her teeth, but made herself smile, nonetheless. “In which case, the invitation is an innocent one, and it would be grotesquely rude to our old neighbour to deny her the opportunity of doing our daughter an immense honour.”

Clarence had never rated her abilities as a chess-player but he knew when she had him in a fork, all the same. In less time than she would have believed possible the courier was pelting down the road to Gondal Town, insincere professions of gratitude and delight from both Elizabeth’s parents scorching a hole in his saddle-bag.

Husband and wife looked at each other being, for once, of a single mind. Clarence spoke first.

“Whatever is afoot, it would, I think, be wise not to bruit it abroad. The letter spoke of Miss Hooper’s exhaustion, of her need for rest, seclusion and contemplation.” He frowned. “It is to be hoped she has not inherited her father’s constitution.”

Harriet nodded. “If the King does set traps for us, there will be those in the district watching to see them sprung. Not a word, even to Lydia. I shall give it out that Lizzie extends her stay with Charlotte and no-one will trouble themselves to enquire further.”

“Oh, is this not sublime!” Charlotte exclaimed.

The last curve of the white dust road had opened up a new vista: two wooded headlands, curved inwards like a crab’s claws, enclosing a jewel-blue bay.

Elizabeth nodded, her heart to full to speak. Seated in the place of honour, in the forward-facing seat of the carriage, Miss Hooper produced a silver bottle from her reticule, dropped some liquid from it onto a fine lawn handkerchief and dabbed her temples. Elizabeth’s nostrils caught the sharp scent of peppermint oil. Headache she deduced.

She leant forward. “Miss Hooper —”

“Molly, please. After all, had but Providence allowed, we would have grown up together, as equals. Are we not all the daughters of gentlemen of Meryton?”

Elizabeth blinked. She chose her words very carefully. “We are, indeed. But you are also the sister of the King, and the cousin of —” The words of Mr Darcy of Pemberley stuck in her throat. For the life of her, she could not utter them. She swallowed, hard. “And the cousin of the Crown Princess of Gaaldine.”

“A distant cousin, at best, in Charis’ case.” Miss Hooper arched her feathery brows. “Were we all in company together, you would be more likely to be taken to be her kin.”

The skin between Elizabeth’s shoulder-blades prickled. Wickham had said something about her resemblance to the Princess. But since she had read and re-read Mr Darcy’s letter, she knew not which, if any, of Wickham’s professions could be trusted. In this, though, it seemed he had spoken truth.

Molly dabbed her temples again. “In any event, my connections are not material. Not now. Not here.”

She leant forward and dropped her voice, as if for fear the coachman might be able to hear, or, absurdly, their voices carry to the maid and attendant manservant in the following carriage with the luggage.

“In Elbe, I wish to present myself only in the character in which I was born: a gentlewoman of Gondal, accompanied by two friends of the same rank. Not as a noblewoman, nor as a member of the Royal family. I need sea air. I need tranquility. I must have privacy. I will not let false consciousness of rank get between me and what I must have.”

Her colour rose, as did her voice; her hands turned over and over in her lap, twisting the handkerchief into knots.

Confronted by this overt emotion, Charlotte seemed frozen into her seat. Elizabeth reached out across the carriage and caught Miss Hooper’s wrist, feeling the racing pulse beneath her fingers like a trapped bird.

“And if there is anything we can do to assure you of those, we will do it.” She drew a deep breath. “But surely — we are arriving in Lady Catherine’s carriage. You bear the surname ‘Hooper’. Surely someone will put two and two together?”

Molly’s smile managed to be both impossibly sweet and impossibly remote.

“I assure you, I was hard put to it to convince my aunt of the necessity of this stratagem. But I am Mary Arba for the purposes of this visit. I opened my Bible and shut my eyes, stabbed down with my finger and lo! My incognita.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth but Molly raised a hand to forestall her. “If you are worried about the servants, please don’t be. I sent my maid home a few days after we arrived here: she was long overdue some leave. Both Jeanette and Giulio have known me since childhood. When I told them of what I planned, Giulio said, ‘Trust us. We are good, faithful hounds, who run silent.’ As for the carriage, this one does not bear my aunt’s arms, but only her livery, which is interchangeable with that of several others. At this time of the year, you know, people come to Elbe from all over Gondal.”

A villa near Elbe. Despite the stifling heat of the carriage, Elizabeth felt suddenly cold. She had not enquired, but surely the villa to which they were travelling must be the same one in which Wickham had wormed his way into the affections of Mr Darcy’s sister, with disastrous results.

With a jingling of harness and a blowing out of breath, the horses came to a halt. They felt the lurch of the carriage as the coachman jumped down, the creak and clank of iron gates opening and then the carriage turned sharp right, down an avenue overshadowed by umbrella pines and cypresses like black flames. Elizabeth leant out of the carriage window, inhaling great gulps of resinous, salt-tanged air.

They drew up before the villa and saw the housekeeper coming out to meet them, all smiles.

“I must lie down,” Molly said. “I do not believe I am equal to dinner, though I shall ensure it is laid on the terrace at whatever hour you prefer. But do not let my weakness prevent your exploring the villa and its grounds, or further afield if you have strength for it.”

Charlotte’s eyes shone. “Are we far from the port itself? I have been told there is a market along the quayside, which opens as the sun goes down. They say there are fire eaters and sword dancers, acrobats and musicians: ship’s crews from Venice, Sicily and Constantinople and even from Egypt.”

Momentarily, Elizabeth’s mental picture of her cousin swung askew: the thought of Mr Collins describing such exotic (ill-regulated) scenes to his wife was too incongruous. Then reality, and the recollection of Charlotte gossiping with the fishmonger, obtruded themselves. Whatever intelligence entered the Hunsford household, it was overwhelmingly likely it came there by way of the tradesman’s entrance.

Molly gestured with her left hand. “Over the saddle of that headland. It is a short walk, and well shaded for much of its length. But, if you are planning to go there in the evening, please ensure Giulio escorts you. It is not a large port, as such places go, but it is a port. Seamen cast ashore are not known to respect the niceties. Also, Elbe, in particular, is very close to the border. Were trouble to arise, the instigators could be secure in Gaaldine before six turns of the glass, even against pursuit. These men are smugglers born.”

Elizabeth’s spirits lifted and she could see Charlotte’s do likewise. After the close confines of Hunsford and, for all its spacious grounds, Rosings itself, such freedom was intoxicating.

“We will be sure to bear it in mind, ma’am.”

Molly. Do you bear that in mind, also. All consideration of rank is left at Rosings or in Gondal Town.”

For one fleeting moment, Elizabeth saw something flicker in Molly’s eyes; a tightening around her lips which gave an entirely different cast to her gentle features. However disarming her manner, there was steel at Miss Hooper’s core, and woe betide anyone who provoked her to unsheathe it. Her nerves prickled.

“Lemonade, ladies?” The housekeeper was among them, and all dissolved into smiles.

They did not taste the sweets of Elbe port that evening. Barely had they drunk their lemonade, eaten and praised the almond biscuits which accompanied it, unpacked their bags and seen their clothes safely consigned to the heavy, old-fashioned, cedar-wood presses than clouds were looming, dark and ominous, over the seaward horizon.

The housekeeper had a swift, muttered convocation with Jeannette (Molly, true to her word, had retreated to her room) and announced that dinner would be served indoors.

They had a nervous meal: the heavy-beamed room lit by frequent flashes of lightning, the relentless pounding of rain like small-shot on the tiled roof above. Nor did the storm let up until long after they had retired to bed. In the uneasy sleep that come to someone accustomed to sleeping with the deadweight of a husband — and, prior to that, a sister — on the right-hand side, Charlotte dreamt herself standing on the ramparts of a besieged castle, her arms tight around a swaddled infant, while below armies raged. Her arms ached and the backs of her legs were taut with tension when she at last awoke into the pearlescent glow of dawn.

Further sleep was impossible.

She rose, threw a shawl around her shoulders against what proved to be an entirely hypothetical morning chill, and walked out on to the terrace. The servants would not be stirring yet and it would be both arrogant and unkind to rouse them for her whim, but when they woke she might bespeak a cup of coffee, or perhaps a herbal infusion. Lately she had found herself pulled down by weariness; primed by Mama’s hints, she might wonder did she go increase, save that she was so far free of queasiness.

A white shape materialised in the corner of her eye. Charlotte’s common sense quelled fears of ghosts and fae before her conscious mind had time to entertain them. She turned to see her hostess, barefoot and clad, like her, in sleeping wear, her hair loose about her shoulders.

“Did the storm keep you from sleeping, also? Was it not loud?”

Such forwardness: utterly unbecoming in Mrs Collins of Hunsford, but Charlotte had known that if she hesitated she would be utterly tongue-tied, so disconcerting it was to see the first lady of Gondal mere feet away, looking not at all like a lady of quality, but like —

She gaped. In truth, it was a ghost she was seeing: her older sister Olivia as she had dreamt of her so many times since she had died of the measles when Charlotte herself was only five years old, making the younger children Charlotte’s responsibility, then and forever.

Molly shifted her stance and became once more herself, neither a symbol or a phantom but most truly an enigma.

“It was not the storm entirely. I have been sleeping badly of late. News came to Court weeks ago that a certain young friend of mine, a protégé of sorts, had suffered a grave misfortune in Gaaldine.”

Then, in a voice so low Charlotte had to strain to hear it, Molly breathed, “I should not have allowed him to go.”

So that was what Charlotte had sensed. Authority. Yes. She had had responsibility thrust upon her, but Olivia had worn it like a garment, even at seven years old. That was why Charlotte had always felt like a perpetual imposter. That was why she had always known she needed to make a superhuman effort to make up for that deficiency.

“Whenever I think of him, I cannot lie idle. I must be doing. Mrs Collins —” There was a note in Molly’s voice which was not the conventional one.

“Charlotte,” Charlotte corrected, her backbone freezing at her own audacity. How wonderful that William was not here!

Molly paused. “My pardons. Charlotte. The morning is cool and early, we are both wakeful when our companion is not —”

Indelicate it might be to allude to it, but their bedrooms were aligned in a row, and it could not be denied that a rhythmic hum (only the most vulgar would decree it to be a snore) was emerging from Lizzie’s bedroom.

“Quite so,” she said, suppressing a grin and seeing from Molly’s face that she was doing likewise.

“Could you accompany me on a walk into Elbe port over the headland, while the morning is still cool? We could dress quickly, I think, and be back before breakfast.”

Charlotte ducked her head, and confessed herself happy.

The walk, as Molly had promised, was shaded, the incline gentle and the morning cool. They were the very conditions for a rapid improvement of acquaintance, and then for an acceleration of the progress from acquaintance towards friendship. It helped that they were just close enough in age to remember some of the older residents of Meryton and its district, many of them dead these ten years or more, and to laugh over their peculiarities, reminiscences which would have left the younger Lizzie baffled.

Altogether, the walk was so agreeable that they were on the final descent to the port, the water sparkling in the bay below them, almost before Charlotte realised it.

Among the small caiques and fishing smacks moored alongside the quayside one great three-masted vessel towered above them all, like a goose in a poultry yard of bantams, cedar-dark, heavy with carving, the rising sun glinting off the gold paint on prow and stern.

“Oh, a galleon!” Charlotte exclaimed. “Is it not magnificent?”

Molly’s grin made her look like an impish boy.

“I daresay its master would be delighted to hear his vessel flattered so. But it is not a galleon but what they call an argosy. They build them in the Adriatic, and they ply through all the three kingdoms. I understand they roll tremendously in rough weather. One of the lords of the court was forced to take passage across the straits of Otranto in one this January. It came on to blow and oh! How he suffered! Granted, he made a very good tale of it, and perhaps his sufferings may have been exaggerated just a trifle to suit his audience, but I should not care to sail in one. That said, should we inspect it more closely?”

“An argosy?” Charlotte savoured the word in her mouth. It felt familiar and exotic at the same time, with a curious edge. Surely she had heard it before: in a song, maybe? An elusive memory beat at her brain with futile moth wings. Never mind. It would come to her in time. Such things always did.

The tall sides of the ship cast welcome shade over the quay. Close to, one could see how much in need of touching up was the white, brown, blue and pink paint on the ship’s figurehead, and how cracked and thin the gilding which picked out the ship’s name and port of origin on the stern-boards. The Santa Gertrude of Ragusa did not appear to be a prosperous vessel. Nevertheless Charlotte, brought up in Lucas Lodge, where fresh paint and the workmen to apply it had had to be squeezed out among a dozen other claims on Papa’s purse, found the argosy’s shabbiness curiously endearing.

The gangway was down and two men in the act of disembarking; one a fresh-faced, boyish clerk with an armful of papers and his companion an older man, whose military bearing was slightly marred by a sort of stiffness about the shoulders.

An unexpected wave washed in just as the two men reached the landward end of the gangplank. It lifted, and the young clerk stumbled, almost sprawling. His papers slithered from his hands and distributed themselves all over the ground. He said something brief and emphatic in a language Charlotte had never heard before.

“Now then. None of that,” the older man said in the language of Gaaldine, his voice gruff but, Charlotte thought, carrying a note of warning. The young clerk looked up, muttered an apology in the same language, albeit with a strong foreign accent. A tantalising breeze chose this precise moment to spring up, sending the scattered papers whirling across the quayside and involving the two men in a frantic but somehow absurd dance to recapture them before they were blown into the harbour and lost forever.

A treacherous little eddy sent one of the sheets flapping close to her. She captured it beneath her sole on the very edge of the quayside, stooped and picked it up. It was closely written on both sides in a neat, precise hand. A woman’s hand part of her brain told her mechanically, and then A familiar hand.

Dark grainy spots swirled at the edge of her vision; she was at once too hot and shivering.

Molly was instantly by her side. “Charlotte: are you quite well?”

She gestured, feebly, with the hand holding the paper. “A — a moment. A moment of dizziness. I bent to pick this up, and must have stood up too sharply.”

“Ma’am. Many thanks.”

There was a calloused hand outstretched below her. Dumbly, she surrendered the paper into it. The man, the older of the pair, tucked it inside his jerkin before taking her arm, stolid and respectful.

“Now, ma’am, let’s be helping you into the shade, so you can recover yourself. Then I’ll see they send you out a nice, cool drink from the inn.”

She suffered him to lead her to a seat beneath the umbrella palms lining the harbour, Molly in careful, watchful attendance all the while. She sank, gratefully, into the shade.

“Head on your knees, now, until we are quite sure the dizzy spell has passed.”

Gratefully, she buried her face in the soft fabric of her dress. At least that way she could not betray anyone by her expression.

She would have wagered everything she possessed and ever hoped for that Lizzie Duplessis was the truest daughter of Gondal who ever drew breath. But, that being so, how in a million years had a letter in Lizzie’s handwriting, addressed to My dear uncle, found its way via an argosy of Ragusa into the port of Elbe, and, further, into the hands of an old soldier who spoke the tongue of Gaaldine like a native and of a willowy clerk who spoke it like nothing Charlotte had ever heard on God’s green earth?