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

The ninth of September saw the formal opening of the shooting season across Gondal. The week before that important date brought a flurry of activity to Meryton and the country estates round about.

Harriet had it on the excellent authority of Mrs Hill (who had met and conversed with Mrs Nicholls, the Netherfield housekeeper, while the latter was putting in lavish orders at the butcher’s against her master’s return) that Mr Bingley would be opening the season on his own estate, despite having had many flattering offers from landed proprietors across the realm.

Privately, Harriet took herself to the chapel of St Priscilla, patron of happy marriages, and lit candles. Publicly she urged upon Clarence his absolute duty to wait upon Mr Bingley as soon as possible, in the hopes of retrieving Jane’s matter even at this late date. He laughed at her. She went to bed late and woke headachy and cross.

She had the last laugh, nonetheless. On the third day after his arrival in the district, not only did Mr Bingley arrive at Longbourn on his own initiative but he was accompanied by his friend Mr Darcy, although the latter stayed only for a scant (and largely silent) half-turn, having business that could not be delayed which compelled his return to Gondal Town.

Harriet eyed him distrustfully. True, the discovery of Giulio’s treachery had taken the Crown Prince’s idiotic plan to marry Lizzie precipitately to Mr Darcy completely off the table. Proceeding would have been tantamount to marching up to the door of the Catiff’s Tower and begging the gaolers to admit them straight to the torture chambers. Equally luckily, that revelation had come before she had broached the business to Lizzie, though she could not acquit herself of having raised a few false hopes. But surely Mr Darcy might at least have contrived some words of apology or regret, or non-specific future hope, not the absolute silence which had prevailed for almost a month, as if —

As if the whole scheme of his marrying Lizzie were a mere web of illusion spun by the Crown Prince of Gaaldine, which melted at the first breath of wind or touch of sun.

Fool that she had been! Miss Hooper was the richest heiress in Gondal and the match with Mr Darcy the favoured project of their cousin, the King. What competing ties of affection would not fray under the edge of that blade?

She did not have to like it, though.

Pointedly, she made a business of welcoming Bingley back into the family home with an effusive display which might not have been inappropriate for a close kinsman, returned after a decade-long trip to the Indies. Her greeting to Mr Darcy was, by contrast, marked by cold and ceremonious politeness, and returned in kind.

He surprised Harriet, though, as he took his departure. Mr Bingley remained in the parlour and the girls, of course remained with him. Clarence had not emerged from his study, though the commotion of the gentlemen’s arrival must have penetrated even to that fastness. Accordingly, the ceremony of leave-taking fell to her. While they were briefly alone in the hall, as the manservant went to order Mr Darcy’s horse brought round, he turned and said, “May I take any message to your cousins, the Gardiners? I do not know when I may get the opportunity to see them, since my engagements in town are not all within my own power, but I would be happy to let them know that you are in health, and to pass on any messages you may have?”

Harriet stumbled over her words. “My thanks and — your cousin, is she also in health?”

His eyes widened. “My cousin? I have heard no news of Miss Hooper for some —” He looked as if he were reckoning days in his head. “When was your youngest daughter’s wedding day? The fifth — no, the sixth of August? I received news that day which took me urgently back to Pemberley. This is my return journey: I broke it at Netherfield in hopes I might find Charles here, but I have not been in Gondal Town for almost a month.”

“Oh,” Harriet exclaimed. “I had thought —”

She fell silent, rapidly reassessing the events of the last month. If Mr Darcy had left town for Pemberley the very day Lydia had married, then the crisis which had impelled him to depart without leaving any word must have been sudden, unexpected and of no small dimensions.

Given that Mr Darcy had a sister in the North, given their recent upheavals with Lydia, given the lines of strain about his mouth and eyes, Harriet thought she could infer what shape the crisis had taken.

“I trust,” Harriet said carefully, “that your business has achieved a successful outcome?”

His lips compressed, but, she persuaded herself, there was a hint of acknowledgement about his eyes.

“Nothing is certain yet. I got to Gondal Town to resolve matters. But I have better hopes than for some time past. Thank you, madam, for your hospitality. And your good wishes. And I shall remember you to my cousin, Miss Hooper.”

With that, he was gone.

She returned to the parlour, to find that Bingley, with the greatest good nature in the world, had proposed a round game, and all her daughters were in boisterous spirits about it.

Harriet considered asking him to stay to dine, but recalled in time Mrs Hill’s gloomy prognostications on the state of the Longbourn larder that very morning. Instead, she pressed an invitation for two days hence upon their visitor, and was gratified by his instant acceptance.

Much cheered by the day, she ordered a carafe of ratafia and retired to her study to finish the letter to Lydia she had started that morning. None of her previous ones had yet received an answer, but she calculated that the festivities of which Wickham had spoken, the funeral games for Colonel Abruzzi, must now have happened, or would have done so by the time her letter arrived, at least, and Lydia was not one to miss the chance to talk over the shade of a departed party, not even by letter.

Lady Abruzzi was escorted to her carriage by a cheering company of the victors, all of them wearing the scarlet silk sashes with which she had presented them. The carriage vanished down the road in a cloud of dust. With a roar, all three regiments rushed towards the cooking pits, where two oxen plus assorted sheep, pigs and fowl had been roasting since the earlier part of the day. The hogsheads of wine and barrels of beer brought in by carters at Lady Abruzzi’s orders earlier that day were broached, and Lady Abruzzi was toasted three times and three times three around the campfires.

Some time later, Colonel Fitzwilliam and his aide-de-camp, Captain Lennox strolled out onto the stone terrace outside the officers’ mess. The air struck fresh compared to the stuffiness of the the mess, but the tumult arising from the camp — previously muffled by the mess’s thick walls — was less welcome.

“Lady Abruzzi showed discretion in leaving early,” Captain Lennox observed.

“Indeed. Judging by that noise, there will by bloodshed by dawn.”

“You give it so long, sir?”

“I do not refer to bloody noses; not even to daggers drawn in haste. Send word to treble the guard on the treasury.”

Captain Lennox raised his eyebrows. “We have enough in there to justify a guard?”

They had worked long enough together to overlook an occasional familiarity. Nevertheless, Colonel Fitzwilliam’s voice had an edge to it.

“The men are due to be paid in four days. How would you rate our chances of avoiding outright mutiny should the men discover that, for the fifth month running, we do not have the smallest chance of doing so? And how, do you suppose, would such news be received in Castle Cavron?”

Captain Lennox’s face changed. He stepped aside, and uttered a low-voiced command to the duty officer, who saluted and vanished.

“Sir, perhaps it might be advisable if we took a tour of the battlements? We can assess the situation as it develops from there.”

And, understood, be able to detect any potential eavesdropper before they got within earshot.

They had completed a half-circle of the fort’s upper defences before Colonel Fitzwilliam spoke again.

“Is it not paradoxical that we find ourselves having to devote far more effort to guard what is not there, than we would had it been all present and correct?”

Captain Lennox, prudently, decided to leave that remark where his colonel had dropped it.

“Have you still heard nothing from the War Office, sir?”

“No. I sent a second express yesterday, making representations in the strongest terms that this culpable disregard for the basic principles of army management leaves us open to our weakness being exploited to the hurt of the entire nation should any enemy become aware of it.”

Become aware, sir?”

Too many officers, deceived by his broad North Gondalian accent and occasional lack of respect for the niceties, were inclined to dismiss Captain Lennox as an uncultured bumpkin. The colonel knew that his wit was sharper than his sword and few who came within range of either escaped unharmed.

“Your meaning?”

Captain Lennox’s gaze swept up and down the rampart; he even went to the wall and peered through the nearest crenellation. Only once he was sure their solitude was absolute did he speak.

“Sir. The camp below us is, as you remarked, bubbling to the boil, and, if we are not careful, could shortly boil over into outright strife. But the men have had feasts before; the men have had games. Why this outcome now?”

It was not as if the thought had not occurred before. But he had shrunk from it. Now someone else had voiced it, there was no escaping the taste of bitter aloes.

“Lady Abruzzi. The men can endure hardships one could hardly credit, had one not seen them happening. They will suffer, and suffer and not merely go on, but stay cheerful doing so. Harsh treatment they can and will take until the Last Judgment, but partiality —”

“Indeed, sir. Partiality. Anything which smacks of unequal treatment. We have three regiments here and to her late husband’s regiment Lady Abruzzi made a memorial gift of five thalers per man.”

“The other regiments should not have resented that.” Colonel Fitzwilliam was aware he sounded like a man trying to convince himself. “Obviously she
would favour her late husband’s men. And the games were open to all the regiments and the prizes handed out with an open hand: ten thalers, twenty thalers, fifty thalers for third, second, first. So, also, is the the feast open to all the camp, and equally generously catered.”

“Sir.” There was a repressive note in Captain Lennox’s voice which the Colonel had learnt it was as well to heed.


“The Abruzzis were never, that I heard, a wealthy couple. And now Lady Abruzzi is a widow.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s head snapped round. “Go on.”

“800 men at 5 thalers a head. That’s 4000 thalers to begin with. Prizes at 10 thalers, 20 thalers and 50 thalers for third, second and first respectively. I forget how many contests there were, but there cannot have been fewer than twenty. Then tonight. Wine, beer, oxen, pigs, sheep, chickens — a feast ad lib for three whole regiments, the best part of two and a half thousand men. This entire day can have cost Lady Abruzzi not a cent less than ten thousand thalers. Many noblemen of Gondal would consider that a good year’s income.”

“You’re right. Where could she have got the money?”

That is not a mystery,” Captain Lennox said. “Although it is certainly a problem.”

“Tell me how she raised the wind?”

“Gambling. That giggling girl our newest lieutenant brought with him — I’d bet ten thalers they’re not married, whatever they claim—”

“Not one step further.” Colonel Fitzwilliam’s voice was low and deadly. “First, you would lose your money. And, with it, my regard. My cousin attended their wedding. That is, you do mean Lydia Wickham, yes?”

Captain Lennox stood straighter. “My pardon, sir. But yes, that young lady. It would appear I have been misinformed. I shall ensure hints are dropped in appropriate quarters.”

“Be sure you do.”

Reluctantly, but in justice to his subordinate Colonel Fitzwilliam added, “Strictly between ourselves, I am sure the characters of both the lieutenant and his bride are exactly as you have surmised, but the lady’s family are respectable and for the credit of her sisters a legal match has been patched up. I have met one of the other girls myself, a most accomplished, amusing, genteel young lady, received in the best circles. She assuredly does not deserve her sister’s faults to blight her life. But I digress. What did Mrs Wickham say, and to whom?”

“As to whom, to anyone who would listen. As to what — I gather she and the other officers’ ladies had tea in the mess-tent with Lady Abruzzi. And from what the young and indiscreet Mrs Wickham heard over the tea-cups, it seems the sums Lady Abruzzi outlaid on comforts for the troops she won playing high. In the capital. At a private salon for selected ladies of the court. Managed by no other than Lady Agnes Traquair.”

“But —”

“Quite so, sir. The wife of the head of the War Office. If the whole camp isn’t currently buzzing with rumours that the head of the War Office has allowed his wife to gamble away the soldiers’ pay and that the gallant Colonel Abruzzi’s widow has stepped up to return as much as she can by the most discreet means she could contrive, then I don’t know soldiers.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam drew a deep breath. Then he swore fluently for several minutes. Captain Lennox waited for him to run out of steam. When he had —

“All that and more, sir, but would you permit me to be frank with you?”

“You mean you haven’t been?”

“Not about this.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at his subordinate in trepidation. That note in a man’s voice normally portended that his relationship with the speaker was about to change, irrevocably. Still, no point in postponing it.

He cleared his throat. “Proceed.”

Captain Lennox checked once again for eavesdroppers.

“Sir, let us please acknowledge one thing, here and now. Whatever anyone says, whatever even his grace the King says, Lady Abruzzi’s husband was foully murdered at the hand of the man who then took over his regiment. I owe my life to Colonel Abruzzi. I was the greenest and youngest of ensigns; he, a new-minted captain. We found ourselves in a tight spot and I would have died there had it not been for his resolution and tactical genius.”

Captain Lennox nodded towards the cluster of angry fireflies which was the camp.

“Sir, there are many down there who will have similar stories. There are many camp-followers down there who have found themselves almost incapable of going on and then have found Lady Abruzzi there at their elbows with hot soup, clean linens and hope. Kill me here if you must, sir, to stop my treasonous mouth, but I acknowledge she has a grievance and that, in essence, the soldiers are correct. They have been cheated of their proper pay. Lady Abruzzi has made restoration in part. When the mutiny erupts, sir, do not fear I will not fight and die at your side. But you should know before I do so that my sympathies will be with the mutineers.”

What could one say? Colonel Fitzwilliam clapped him on the shoulder.

“There’s no need to borrow trouble. In any event I need you elsewhere. I need you to ride out tonight — take a small escort — and go as hard as you can to the capital.”

“To the War Office? But what can I say that has not —”

Not to the War Office. To my father the Earl. He has a seat in the King’s Council; his voice will be heard if anyone’s is.” He looked down again at the camp. “We may still end in disaster, but I will have no-one say we slept while it happened.”

The moon had yet to rise, and the ship’s boat could only be discerned by the break it made in the thin white brush-stroke of surf at the sea’s edge. The haunting, desolate cry of a seabird borne towards them on the light breeze sounded like a bereft, wandering spirit.

“In this murk, how will we ever find the ship?” Georgiana murmured to her companion. Mrs Annesley gripped her arm reassuringly.

“I understand this has been done a good many times before, my dear. In all kinds of weather. Transferring mercenaries, and so on. She is not lying very far off the shore, they tell me. Say your farewells now, my dear; I shall wait in the gig.”

She stumbled back up the beach to the cluster of gorse bushes where the small group of horsemen were waiting.

Her husband came forward and caught her in her arms.

Her husband. Hard to believe. Walking through dew-soaked grass towards he chapel of the d’Ancona hunting lodge at dawn, sleep still in her eyes, supported by her witnesses: Nancy McAllister on her left and Mrs Annesley on her right. Julian, in sober leather hunting garb, turning from the altar to see her progress down the aisle with a blaze in his eyes that lit an answering fire deep inside her. The priest, who it seemed had expected something quite other and who seemed overwhelmed by the frank eagerness of her responses. Kissing Julian in the bridal chamber, frantically, wonderfully, for what felt like hours, while he apologised that — given all that lay ahead, promises given and tasks to achieve — they dare risk nothing more by way of consummation lest all be wrecked at the last.

And then a thirty league ride to this western coast, travelling fast and secretly towards the smuggler’s ship which was to take her to Rome, and leave her heart behind in Gondal.

At the last, she found this thought unbearable

“Do I have to go? Let me stay. Please. Let me stay.”

Gently, inexorably, Julian disengaged her frantic grasp. “You are my jewel, my star, my heart.” He held her off at arms’ length, strong hands gripping her wrists. “My weakness, therefore. Were you to fall into James Moriarty’s hands, I would be undone. My own death at his hands would be a trifle, compared to that. No. Carry our hopes with you into exile, and, if he throws his armies against my fortress, even if our defence fails I shall still have the victory.”

On arrival at Gondal Town Darcy paused at his home only long enough to wash and change into his most formal clothing. Nonetheless, he did not make for the Palace, though he had little doubt that the King was already apprised of his presence in the capital. Instead he turned his horse towards the Earl of Ula’s townhouse.

His uncle the Earl was indeed the head of the family, though once Prince James had been recalled from exile few recalled that fact and most of those few had taken care to forget it by the time of the Coronation. Nonetheless, in the current situation there could be no-one more proper or capable for Darcy to consult. The Earl’s son, Colonel Fitzwilliam, currently on active duty in the Borders, was joint guardian with Darcy of Georgiana. In his son’s absence, the Earl was most truly the person who had a right to rule on Georgiana’s health and happiness. Furthermore, if Colonel Fitzwilliam’s own opinion were required, who better than his father to get a message to him?

The Earl had even commanded a regiment in his youth: had, indeed, formed part of the military escort for Princess Felicia when with one decisive stroke she had stopped an incipient civil war in its tracks by riding across two opposing battle lines to propose marriage to her royal cousin Ambrosine. He had shot with the late Duke of Malham and with Darcy’s father. If anyone knew Malham lands and the military conundrum they presented, that man was the Earl.

Finally, and this carried the most weight with Darcy, his uncle held a seat in the King’s Council. If the King wanted to get Georgiana back by force of arms he would by the immemorial custom of Gondal have to consult the Council before putting an army in the field. True, he would not have to take their advice, but if he ignored it and things turned out badly, more than one King in Gondal’s history had lived to rue such a decision. And more than one had not lived.

He was shown immediately into his uncle’s study, where he found him sitting, as Darcy had so often seen him, behind a great mahogany desk laden with estate documents and State papers.

Once Darcy explained the purpose of his visit the Earl came to the point directly.

“His Grace the King will, of course, take the view that, should you pay the ransom, you would give a war chest to someone who already is in occupation of a strategic position on our northern marches. Many in Council will take that to be a powerful argument. And so it is.”

Darcy set his teeth.

“But if we try to extract Georgiana by force of arms, we could end up spending more than a quarter of a million thaler in matériel alone, to say nothing of the lives lost. Uncle, you know the Northern hunting lodge. It can be no exaggeration that in an assault where it was defended by a determined force we would suffer casualties in hundreds or thousands, while the defenders spent them in tens or dozens.”

His uncle glared at him.

“Listen to reason, boy. Listen to strategy. We have thousands of men. We have tens of thousands. By snatching the King’s own cousin, that bandit has now declared himself in opposition to us at a time when he can only command mere hundreds, at best. Forcing him into a siege now could easily be presented as an opportunity to put down the threat posed by the so-called ‘Duke of Malham’ once and for all. Even the common soldiers sent into that maelstrom will be persuaded — at least, before they and their comrades start to die — the rescue of a noble virgin of Gondal from a masquerading bandit is a worthy cause.”

“But —”

“And don’t go telling me you believe Georgiana is in the hands of the real Julian d’Ancona. First, walls have ears and, second, that would make him a traitor in open rebellion, a traitor from a line of traitors, and all the more reason to be put down.”

His uncle scowled repressively down at him. Darcy gulped and pressed on.

“But sir, the terrain —”

The Earl snorted. “The terrain? Yes: you and I know the terrain is a death-trap. How many of our fellows in Gondal Town, how many of my peers in the King’s Council have the smallest idea of conditions seventy-five leagues north of the capital? I could make the argument; I’ll warrant it will fail. The arrogance of the capital’s lords has to been seen to be believed, and I have seen it more often than you can think, yet still cannot credit it. And that, by the way, assumes I am even permitted to make any argument at all. The pressure will be on me to recuse myself, given Georgiana is my niece.”

And the King’s her cousin. So? Mindful of his uncle’s warning about eavesdroppers, Darcy kept this thought to himself. Tamping down his temper, he made his final appeal.

“If we try to resolve this by force of arms, Georgiana and Mrs Annesley — my sister and our kinswoman — will be right at the heart of the siege. You have fought, sir; I have not. But from your accounts and from those of your son I know how unpredictable a battle can be, and most especially for women caught up in it. Please spare them that.”

Across the desk, the Earl’s withered claw stretched out to catch his nephew’s wrist.

“Trust me. If the King declares for war, on the facts as they stand at present half the Council (if not more) would endorse him without thinking and the rest with little less than token resistance. No; your only hope is to pay the ransom without engaging the public purse and persuade his Grace that the Borders remain too turbulent to risk his opening up a war on two fronts.”

Darcy nodded. He had reached that conclusion two days ago; his uncle only confirmed his own thoughts.

“Boy — can you even raise the ransom from your own resources? Or even half such a sum? A quarter of a million thaler: that is a fearsome amount. Georgiana’s dowry is only fifty thousand and the Pemberley estate is entailed. You can mortgage to the maximum, but you cannot sell. Can you raise the wind? Yes or no?”

That calculation had beset him on the whole journey south. Had beset him since he had received Malham’s letter. Each line of it seemed written into his heart, totted and tabulated in neat double columns.

“I can.” His voice was firm. “With funds which I am readily able to liquidate, together with the funds I can — as you point out — raise by mortgaging Pemberley I can pay a quarter of a million thaler on the appointed day. Better still, should I let Pemberley, I shall be able to live in modest style while repaying the mortgage. But in addition, by adopting some respectable calling, I should be able to discharge my obligations so much the sooner. I have friends in Gondal Town whose advice on my next steps in that direction I expect to find invaluable.”

For the first time his uncle allowed a wintry smile to cross his features.

“So you will lower yourself utterly in the eyes of society, for the sake of affection and principle? No-one can say you lack determination. Or fortitude.” His lips twisted in bitter remembrance. “You remind me of someone. But that lady is hardly a model to be followed. I think you underestimate the impact on you of the fall from so great an estate as you have always enjoyed. She did and it cost her all she had.

“But, leaving aside the past, should you not consult my niece before mbrangling your finances to such a degree? It is all but give out in Gondal Town that it only awaits the State ball for your engagement to Miss Hooper to be announced. You can hardly expect my niece to affiance herself to a beggar.”

“Irrespective of my financial position, I would assuredly challenge such an announcement. I have never, in heart or word —”

“I know you haven’t.”

The new voice made him spin on his heels. Molly emerged from behind the the screen concealing the servants’ entrance, wearing the elaborate day-dress that the first lady of Gondal should wear for a morning audience with the head of her family.

“Forgive me for the intrusion, and for my surprising you both unannounced.”

How”, Darcy enquired through gritted teeth, “did you know?”

“Mrs Reynolds sent an express from Pemberley. Unlike you, that messenger didn’t stop off at Meryton. And your second stable-boy is sweet on my kitchen-maid. The news you had reached Gondal Town and proposed to ride out to see my uncle was with me, I flatter myself, before it even reached the Palace.”

An entire neighbourhood of voluntary spies,” Darcy muttered. “I had business in Netherfield, since you ask. After all, as you just overheard, I need to let Pemberley in a hurry and who more proper as its tenant than Charles Bingley?”

To his satisfaction, Molly’s jaw dropped. “You would see Caroline Bingley presiding at Pemberley in place of Aunt Anne or Georgiana?”

He scowled. “I propose to let Pemberley to Charles Bingley, not to his sister. I have every hope that Charles Bingley — if it has not occurred already — will shortly be affianced to a lady who, if she is not the first choice I would have as the mistress of Pemberley, is nevertheless the closest possible substitute.”

His cousin smiled sweetly back at him.

“Oh, so your Meryton diversion took in Longbourn as well? I trust you made my duty to Mrs Duplessis and to her daughters?”

“Mrs Duplessis trusts you are in health. She asked me specifically to tell you so. But leaving that aside, Molly, why are you here?”

She raised her brows with an archness which, he suspected, she had learnt in the course of this last Season.

“Cousin, Uncle, are you not both forgetting something? At this precise moment, I am the richest person in this room.” She favoured them both with a small, tight smile. “To be strictly accurate, my brother excepted, I am the richest person in this family.”

The Earl gaped like a landed salmon. Darcy repressed an inconvenient urge to giggle.

“And?” the Earl grunted.

“I am the richest heiress in Gondal. One hundred and fifty thousand thaler I can provide like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Also, I can provide a loan of a further fifty thousand on the easiest of terms to a member of the family. As we all know, Georgiana’s dowry is fifty thousand, and knowing my cousin’s probity that will already have been earmarked and invested in the most secure manner. Two hundred and fifty thousand can be paid tomorrow in a way which involves my cousin neither sacrificing his dignity nor giving up a square cubit of land.”

Their uncle gasped again. “My dear Molly, you cannot impoverish yourself so. Stripping yourself of your dowry —”

She threw her head back. “My dowry? Uncle, I know you wish only for the best for me. But look at it from my point of view. Even if I give Fitzwilliam a hundred and fifty thousand thaler outright and loan him fifty thousand more, I shall still have four times the dowry I had six months ago. And I am used to being poor, which my cousin is not. What I would have left would be wealth to me. Since I have no intention of marrying at all, my dowry will give me ample provision to live out my days quietly. The climate at Elbe suits me. I shall spend my days in painting and improving my mind with solid reading.”

“Damn your eyes, Molly, stop talking as if you were sixty-five and had a cast in one eye.” The Earl glared at her across his desk. “With your charm, your breeding, your grace, your fortune — the young chaps have been falling over you all season. Was there no-one to your liking?”

She drew herself up straight. Bright points of scarlet showed on her cheekbones. “I cannot say that. I can, however, say that I met no-one available with whom I could consider spending the rest of my life.”

Darcy suppressed a gasp. That his cousin Molly had cherished a tendresse for anyone came as a most profound shock. That the man in question was otherwise entangled — His mind cast up and instantly rejected half a hundred possibilities.

His uncle looked as staggered as he felt. “You mean there is a marriage barrier in the way?”

Miserably, his cousin nodded.

“Not just a marriage, but children. Children still to be launched respectably on the world. Children who do not deserve to risk having their lives overset so that Miss Molly Hooper, sister of the King, may get what at this particular moment she believes she desires.”

“But —” said the Earl, his eyes bulging. Darcy could not but feel for him.

Molly made a sweeping, arresting gesture.

“Do not mistake me. Please. I do not think the — other party — has the smallest knowledge of my feelings. Or reciprocates them. Believing that makes my duty easier to perform. I refer to this only between the two of you; pray do not share it with anyone else in the family. Anyone at all. Or speculate. But please understand this: in giving up the best part of my dowry to save Georgiana, I am not sacrificing the smallest particle of my happiness: rather, if anything, the reverse. Treat it as handing over an artefact for which I have no possible use and which my family — the dearest part of my family — needs very much .”

His uncle had, indeed, been a general. Faced with so comprehensive an overset of his previous thoughts he regrouped. By the time the three of them had finished strategising, the best part of a turn later, he thought they came on well.

“Nonetheless,” he warned, “even if Georgiana can be retrieved without it costing the public purse a cent or risking a single drop of blood, there is still going to be a war party we need to disarm. And how?”

Molly let out a delicious giggle (how was it that now Darcy knew her to be completely outside his reach, he found her more entrancing?)

“Uncle, please. Don’t even try to pretend gossip is strictly for women. If you need to control that Council session, gossip is your friend.

“Suppose, when matters start to go awry, you break in with a new matter. Strictly speaking, as you said, you ought to recuse yourself from Georgiana’s matter anyway, so your changing the subject will be seen as nothing remarkable.”

“And what, ma’am, do you suggest that I change the blasted subject to?”

With a jolt of surprise, Darcy realised his uncle the Earl was not dismissive of his cousin, but fascinated.

“Uncle. Lord Lestrade is completely disgraced, is he not?”

“Most thoroughly. Lazarus rose from the dead with the help of our good Lord, but Lord Lestrade’s reputation, I wager, is a problem beyond even His fixing.”

“Then I have a suggestion, based on something I heard in Elbe. The same argosy which, I am told, brought Lord Lestrade and his Moorish mistress —”

Her revelation, whatever it might be, was perforce interrupted: first, by the sounds of a furious battering on the main door and, while the three of them were still dumb-founded, by the Earl’s most trusted secretary entering and, in a low voice, saying, “My lord? There is an officer here, sent by your son in the Borders. Colonel Fitzwilliam is well, be assured of that, but the news the officer brought requires your earliest attention.”

Darcy rose to his feet. “My cousin and I will await you in the outer chamber, sir.”

The Earl grunted and waved them out. They were left together, though, for little more than time enough for Darcy to stumble through the most profound thanks to his cousin for her offer and for her once again to convey, in tones of uncompromising sincerity, that by contrast she should consider herself the obliged and to repeat these sentiments three or four times, before their uncle re-emerged, dressed in his most aweful robes of state. The officer who followed him, by contrast, bore all-too obviously the marks of recent hard travelling although the Earl’s own valet danced excitably around him with a brush, endeavouring to bat the worst of the dust from his clothes.

“Darcy, my boy, I suggest you take the chance to put your proposals into a form suitable to lay before the King, whenever he may be at leisure to peruse them. But I cannot undertake that this will be today. This news brought by Captain Lennox is likely to displace the King’s attention from all else for the time being.”

“But Georgiana —”

The Earl’s eyes narrowed. “Including my niece’s matter. Go back to your own house, boy, and await my message. Oh, drop that flapping, Paterson. It’s not his uniform the King’s going to be interested in. Order my carriage brought round. And send a footman ahead. We must wait upon his Grace at the earliest possible opportunity.”

It was done. Harriet was giddy with relief.

That day she had manoeuvred her family out of the principal parlour in order to leave Jane and Bingley together, despite Lizzie’s totally absurd attempts to prevent her. She had spent a nervous turn and a half upstairs in her room, with embroidery she had no spirit for, a book she had no interest in reading and a half-finished letter to Penelope, to which she added not a word, until the sounds of light, running footsteps on the landing outside alerted her to Lizzie’s presence upstairs. She opened the door a fraction, intending to ask if there were news, but the expression on her second-oldest daughter’s face as she passed on the way to her own room told her all she needed.

Silently, she closed the door and leant hard against it, heart pounding, eyes wet with tears. Jane was to marry Bingley; there was no other news which could have summoned that expression of delight to Lizzie’s face.

Jane was to marry Bingley. One of her daughters would be safe, whatever else happened.

And in a family where there had been one marriage (one good) marriage; surely that must be a portent of others on the way?