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

One morning, about a week after Bingley’s engagement with Jane, he and the ladies of the house were sitting together in the front parlour when the party heard a coach and four approaching. Kitty ran to the window, and reported that neither coach, horses nor livery corresponded to those of any neighbours. It was, in any event, far too early for visitors.

Harriet gestured meaningfully to Bingley, and then, he being unresponsive, to Jane. Her daughter, more familiar with the family signal-book than her betrothed, immediately rose to her feet and begged Bingley that they might take advantage of the cool of the day and stroll through the shrubbery towards the water-meadows before the picturesque early mists might have been burnt off by the sun.

The lovers made their escape only just in time. Moments later the doors to the parlour were thrown wide and their visitor entered.

“Mama,” Lizzie murmured, though the new arrival had made no request to be introduced, “Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”

Harriet slid a glance sideways at her second-oldest daughter, but it was plain Lizzie was as baffled at this sudden irruption into their home as Harriet herself.

Lady Catherine entered the room with an air of surpassing ungraciousness, made no other response to Lizzie’s greeting than a slight inclination of the head, and sat down without saying a word.

Recalling every shred of her Court manners, Harriet dropped the most elaborate of curtseys, and held it for a length which might have been thought a trifle overdone had she been facing the King himself, not merely his widowed aunt.

Lady Catherine with the barest motion of a finger acknowledged the gesture. After sitting for a moment in silence, she said very stiffly to Lizzie,
“I hope you are well, Miss Duplessis. That lady, I suppose, is your mother.”

“Indeed, ma’am.”

“And that I suppose is one of your sisters.”

Harriet felt it was high time to seize the reins of this conversation. Babbling, she had often found, prompted others to unbend in sympathy or competition; her ladyship looked unpromising material, but it might be worth a go.

“Yes, ma’am. She is my youngest girl but one. My youngest of all is lately married, and my eldest is somewhere about the grounds, walking with a young man who, I believe, will soon become a part of the family.”

Her suspicion that Lady Catherine was not in the mood to render confidence for confidence was amply borne out by her ladyship’s next remark, which was
“You have a very small park here.”

Harriet felt several of the company of saints would have admired the fortitude with which she choked back what she would like to have said in response, confining herself to, “It is nothing in comparison of Rosings, my lady, I dare say; but I assure you it is much larger than Sir William Lucas’s.”

“This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening, in summer; the windows are full west.”

Which is why we have an east—facing parlour for evening use, you officious old hag, Harriet thought, pasting on a simpering expression and assuring her ladyship that they never sat there after dinner.

Other attempts at small talk having failed, Harriet recalled, with gratitude, their mutual acquaintance in Hunsford. “May I take the liberty of asking your ladyship whether you left Mr. and Mrs. Collins well?”

“Yes, very well.”

“You must have risen early to be with us so soon. Perhaps your ladyship would care for a dish of tea, or perhaps hot chocolate? And some rolls or sweet biscuits?”

“Nothing of that sort. I find myself quite without appetite.” She rose resolutely to her feet. “Miss Duplessis, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company.”

The ill-assorted pair departed into the pleasure grounds. Harriet could not but admire her ladyship’s strategic choice of terrain. It was far more difficult to contrive to overhear a conversation carried on out of doors, and being intercepted in the attempt would put one so decisively in the wrong. Fortunately, she could see her ladyship’s waiting-woman within the carriage and whisked up to have a word in Mrs Hill’s ear, to request her housekeeper offer Lady Catherine’s attendant the comforts of her parlour, and the finest gunpowder or Bohea Longbourn’s pantries could afford.

It was as well she had taken this precaution. Judging from the hectic flush in her cheeks and the flashes of anger in her eyes, Lizzie’s encounter with her ladyship (who had taken herself off without even the barest courtesy of farewell) had plainly been a stormy one, even if Harriet’s civil hints to her daughter to reveal the substance of the conversation were deflected.

Hill, though, had much more to impart. The waiting-woman had been primed to say nothing about her mistress’ purpose in visiting Meryton and Hill was too old a hand at the game to push on a locked door. However, the attendant on a woman of such supreme self-regard must be possessed of no little self-consequence herself, and flattery must be the surest way to find the weak points in her armour.

Before the waiting-woman had been peremptorily required to resume her place in the carriage, Hill had managed to extract from her a tale of fire, theft, high play and Royal disapprobation which (even after both Harriet and her housekeeper had applied generous quantities of salt to the narrative) left both of them somewhere between exhilarated and aghast.

“Come with me,” Harriet said, leading the way briskly to the still-room.

A little later, she sat at her writing desk.

Most honoured Madam. Having learnt, quite by chance (yr honoured aunt was good enough to pay a brief call as she was passing through our neighbourhood) of the distressing events which have recently occurred in yr family, I write to convey my or I should say our sympathy (for Lizzie joins with me in this sentiment & wishes to thank you once more for the kindness you shewed to her at Rosings Park) & to enclose some small gifts which I trust you will take in token of our regard & care for you. The verbena lotion I find sovereign in case of troubled sleep, for soothing the temples & alleviating the head-ache. The dried herbs mixture may either be infused in your bathing water or included in sachets for lightening the air of stuffy rooms; tucked into drawers they possess remarkable efficacy in deterring moths. Both receipts are tried & trusted; I had them of my girls’ nursemaid who came with me from Gondal Town when I was new-wed & what greater gift to a new bride than such a maid; conscientious, skilled, discreet & truly affectionate! She was five years with this family & remains the best of friends to us; it was our great loss when she married — though the travelling public will doubtless consider it greatly their gain; you may, perhaps, have changed horses at the inn she & her husband keep on the Great North Road, not 2 leagues south of Meryton? Their table is quite out of the common & their accommodations of the nicest. Should you chance to visit, then mention my name, & you shall be assured of the best of service. But I digress. My duty to you, honoured madam, & my very best wishes.

“I thought it impossible for you to find me a more hideous ornament than the Mezentian Coronet,” Charis murmured, from amid the tangled bedclothes. Sherlock had arrived late and unheralded and little of the night had been spent in rest.

She sat up, hair tousled, and let the necklace fall from one hand to the other, time after time, watching it with the fascination of a cat presented with a ball of wool.

“You stimulate me to attempt the impossible,” Sherlock said and neatly dodged a hurled pillow.

“In any event,” he continued rather later, “its ugliness shouldn’t have come as a surprise to you. Hadn’t you seen Crown Prince Gerald’s betrothal parure before?”

“Only in the portrait. And it looked a lot better there.”

“Court painters. They even flatter the jewellery.”

“Evidently. And anyway, I still haven’t seen the full parure. These —” She held up the ear-bobs. “They’re a very clever counterfeit. And if you saw them on their own, you’d probably be fooled, especially by candle-light. It’s only when you see them next to the real diamonds —”

She let the river of light fall again from left hand to right, and from right to left.

“Quite so. That was the true genius and cunning of the Pretender. Had everything his spy told him been true — had Miss Hooper truly pawned part of the parure and replaced it with a paste imitation — she would have had no chance of escape. For the two parts of the parure were intended to be united only on the night of the ball. So what is your plan for these truly hideous adornments with which I have presented you, my dear wife?”

She tossed the necklace so high it slammed against the coffered ceiling of the bedchamber, and then plucked it left-handed out of the air on the rebound.

“The diamonds are true, however appalling their setting. And large. And the setting can be melted down. The greater part I intend to spend on hiring soldiers, from the same places as before. But I need to apportion some to buy in salt pork, cured hams, pulses and grain. My cellars are not yet as full as Frances would have them and she has plans for me to stock additional storehouses and granaries on top of that.”

“Listen to her. She does well.”

“She does. It is as if she was born to prepare a castle for an impending siege.”

“Her mother, for several years, ran an Oxford college.” He looked across the room, decades-old images appearing before his eyes. “At least — to the extent it was run, could you imagine Sir Hector doing it? If Mycroft gives Elizabeth Pickering her head — if he has the brains to give her her head, she will run his Court. And she will do so brilliantly. If only he can —”

His eyes dropped to the diamond necklace in his wife’s lap. “The Mezentian Coronet and that little choke-chain are the merest baubles compared to the twin jewels which are the Pickering women. And Frances Pickering, you found for yourself. Treasure her, please, for both your sakes.”

He rose to his feet.

“Forgive me, my dear wife. Due to the press of affairs, I shall have to absent myself for some considerable time from your company. For a period of some months, indeed. Some long months. I trust I leave you in health?”

“Mostly, I feel dreadful,” Charis said with precision. “Nauseous, exhausted and irritable. However, there are some intervals which when I feel almost human. You are lucky such an interval coincided with your visit. But, I fear —”

She gulped, and pressed on only with a visible effort.

“My mother fell at this last challenge. I shall endeavour not to follow her. I realise how much turns on this. I pray you — forgive me if I do not surmount the challenge.”

He dropped down beside her, and clasped her hand. “I pray — to the Virgin and to St Cecelia — that such an event will never come to pass. But if it should do so — be aware. The forgiveness must flow to me, and never be required of you.”

Madam. With what surprise I learn my Aunt lately visited yr family, you can only guess. I can only trust she found you all in health, and regret I could not send my regards by her. It would be improper to call my esteem’d guardian a sly creature but she dropt no hint of her travels to me either before or after.

Furthermore, picture my disappointment that she anticipated my news, though I daresay gossip would have done the same office if Aunt Catherine had not. Town still reels at the theft of my mthr’s necklace from the Earl’s banquet and is full of rumours, each more sensational than the last, though having been present at the affair, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford and, save that I was not actually wearing the necklace at the time and that no-one was murdered, you cannot greatly err. Giulio’s part in this affair cuts very deep. A servant so trusted to be at the bottom of such an intrigue or, at least, well into its inner workings, for I cannot credit him as the sole instigator! But I am at a loss to replace him, treacherous as he may have proved.

The theft of the Betrothal Necklace is felt, I believe, more keenly by my Aunt than by anyone, though how far she misses a memento of a belov’d sister, how far she rues the breaking up of so valuable a parure & how far she blames herself for being the unwitting instrument by which it fell among thieves, who can say? Save for my Aunt’s sake, we are well rid; Jeanette still bears the bruises on her upper arm from being seized by that monstrous wretch & I dare say the loathesome ornament would only have drawn more thieves & perhaps even more violence had the first attempt not succeeded.

Should any such reach Meryton, I pray your aid to dispel the horrid stories which mischievous people are spreading, to the effect the thief was none other than Gaaldine’s disgraced Crown Prince. Such a daring stroke would be most injurious to our national prestige, but happily I can confirm from my own observation the robber had the build of an ox, whereas all those who have seen Prince Sherlock concur that he is tall, but almost excessively slender of build. Furthermore, according to J. (who, I confide, now she has recovered from the shock, is rather enjoying having played such a prominent role in the Season’s most sensational event) the thief spoke with the accents of France.

As for the further particulars, I commend you to my cos. Fitzwilliam, who I understand comes to Netherfield within the next few days (is there some magnetic attraction in yr district, I wonder?) to shoot with Mr Bingley. On which topic, may I send the greatest possible felicitations on yr daughter’s engagement?

Miss Hooper’s letter did not, to Harriet’s mind, convey the discontent which might be expected from a woman who in one week had lost a trusted manservant and the most celebrated necklace in the whole of Gondal. Rather, Harriet felt, indeed, it exuded a certain quiet satisfaction, almost the air of one who had successfully put one over on someone in authority.

As for the news of Mr Darcy’s impending visit — that was Lizzie’s affair. Harriet could only watch, and pray.

Until he and Mr Bingley arrived at Longbourn early one morning, Elizabeth had been almost convinced Mr Darcy would send his apologies, and avoid the vicinity of Longbourn until the end of time.

While all the other arguments that Lady Catherine deployed had struck her as weak and frivolous, the news that Miss Molly Hooper had surrendered so great a sum as 150,000 thaler from her dowry to ransom Georgiana had been a thunderbolt. Such a singular act of generosity might be supposed to deserve an equally singular response. Lady Catherine had waxed eloquent on the probable damage to her nephew’s public credit were he known to have jilted (as she termed it) her adopted daughter in such circumstances. As Elizabeth knew the horror Mr Darcy had of exposing his inner self to the world’s scrutiny, in approaching him in this manner Lady Catherine must be approaching him on his weakest side.

However, such thoughts flew to the four winds the moment she was confronted with the man himself. Indeed, she found herself unexpectedly tongue-tied, and from a sidelong glance at Mr Darcy, spots of crimson high on otherwise pallid cheeks, she thought him in little better case.

Happily her mother loudly decreed that her daughters and the two gentlemen should “Go out, take advantage of this open weather, go and lose yourselves in the district” and Mr Bingley, with the alacrity of an acknowledged and indulged suitor, declared himself at one with the programme. Mary declined; Kitty they lost at Lucas Lodge, and — Mr Bingley and Jane finding all-too-frequent excuses to dawdle over some rare woodland plant, strange fungus, or antique inscription on a way stone — she and Mr Darcy rapidly outwalked their companions.

Once alone, she summoned up every last shred of her courage.

“Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”

What followed that confession was all she could have hoped for in her wildest dreams. He frankly confessed he had intervened in Lydia’s matter for Elizabeth’s sake and that alone; he confessed that his own feelings from the spring were unchanged, but undertook to stay silent on the matter forever is she did not return those feelings.

She could barely make herself intelligible, but at length stammered out, “My previous feelings are most assuredly overset. Marrying you would make me the happiest of women. But—” Harsh reality struck. “The King will be angry with you. He wishes you to marry Miss Hooper.”

“The King will be angry about a great many things in the near future.” He caught her hands, and drew her into his embrace. “He is already furious with Molly for losing the Betrothal Necklace.”

“But that isn’t her fault —”

“James Moriarty does not think that way.”

He was holding her very tight, she felt she might faint from proximity.

“He does not?”

“My dearest Elizabeth, forgive me. When we first met, I disparaged your family. No, ssh. Let me speak. I never mentioned my own family in that context; absurdly, I took them for granted. But — the King is my cousin. And what a King! What a cousin! Any woman of sense would run far, far from being connected to James Moriarty. Escape is still possible, my dearest, my most beloved Elizabeth. Turn down my proposal and you can still be free.”

“Free?” She wriggled within his grasp to look up at him. “No. I accept your proposal. All your proposals. Including the ones you have implied, but failed to make explicit. By the way, I cannot bear marital subterfuge. I expect plain dealing from this day forth.”

“Understood,” her future husband murmured.

“Excellent. So. I declare before God, the Holy Virgin and this slightly decrepit elm tree —”

She gestured in its direction.

“That I will take whatever comes of accepting your proposal, even be it treason, and confusion to the Pretender! I am John Watson’s niece. I was born with a foot in both camps. Today is when I finally choose my colours.”

The day was soon coming, Harriet knew, on which she would say farewell to her two most deserving daughters. Further, they would form homes to which she would have no hesitation in sending Kitty and Mary; homes which would give them the benefit of a wider and better-informed society than Meryton had ever been able to provide. Not safe homes — nowhere in Gondal would be safe in the next months, and Harriet was not fool enough to suppose they could be. Still; homes where the master and mistress knew of the oncoming storm, and were preparing for it; unlike Longbourn, whose master had never prepared, only retreated behind a barrage of deflection, blame and badinage.

Harriet exhaled. She had borne five daughters. She would, within the next few weeks, have seen each and every one of them into the safest harbour the times and circumstances could afford.

And then?

Her lips twisted. For the first time in twenty years she felt the thrill of proximity to great affairs, compared to which wine or brandy were pallid substitutes. Nor need she expect to remain at one remove from this greatest of all matters, immured in country seclusion.

One of these days, when Clarence uttered his time-smoothed plea,”Why does no-one ever allow me the use of my house and my library in peace?” he would get what he wished for.

Would it make him happy?

Harriet smiled. Why on earth should she care?

The End