Chapter Twenty-Four - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
Giulio gulped. “I have — here, my lord.”
He dropped the contents of the leather purse onto the desk. The golden light of late afternoon slanted through the small-paned windows.
“Dear me. My — the lady gets no better at cards, does she?”
To say truth, the diamond ear-bobs were quite as hideous as previously hinted. The remainder of the tumbled jewels on the table were equally ugly. But, old-fashioned, ill-set and clumsy as these ornaments might be, the stones were of the finest quality. And there were a lot of them.
“My lord, I tried —”
“And failed, evidently. Something else will have to be done. This is beyond even my powers; I shall have to call upon an older and stronger authority.”
“My lord!” One of the searching soldiers scurried over. “Look!”
That fragment of rococo gilt could, indeed, only have come from the Darcy state coach. It had been trodden deep into the mud by the side of the road but Darcy could see from the splintered edge where someone had taken an axe to it. He lifted his voice.
“Well done. Come, men. We’ll try a cast through this thicket.”
The trees here had been cut down for timber eight years ago; not wantonly (for the Darcys had always been careful of their timber, which represented much of Pemberley’s wealth) but in a broad strip later replanted with saplings, which were now thigh-high and served as cover for all sorts of wildlife. They were, Darcy thought abstractedly, overdue for thinning. When all this was over, he would have to instruct his foresters.
The sun beat down pitilessly. The soldiers spread out in a fan, sweeping through the undergrowth from side to side.
“Sir! Here!” The shout sent game birds rocketing out of the undergrowth. Darcy’s head went up. He could see the soldier in the far distance, his arms windmilling frantically. He broke into a run, cursing the small trees which caught at his garments.
At the soldier’s feet was a battered, dazed man, his face puffed with privation, his lips black and cracked. Darcy dropped to his knees beside him; someone handed him a flask, and he dripped water between the man’s cracked lips. The man’s throat convulsed as he swallowed.
“Not all of it, not yet. More presently,” Darcy instructed.
The man’s eyes were showing too much white, and the dirty bandage around his head had some fresh blood on it. Still, he struggled to sit up.
“I have — to get a message —”
“What message? Who are you? No, don’t strain yourself. Take it slowly.”
He allowed the wounded man another swig from the flask.
“My name is Peter Brenzaida.” His hand reached up and grasped Darcy’s wrist with unexpected strength. “I am — I was the officer guarding Georgiana Darcy. I have escaped my captors and need to bring news of her to her family. Tell me, Which direction is Pemberley?”
“We’ll take you there. I am Georgiana’s brother. No, don’t waste your strength. Trust us: you are with friends now. Sergeant! Give me your six strongest men. The rest of you keep searching for the remains of the coach. As for me, I shall return to Pemberley.”
The veiled woman in half-mourning descended from the carriage and walked, stiffly at first, then with more ease as the cramps and knots in her muscles loosened with the exercise, into the inn yard. The air, here, had an upland tang. She knew that if she turned her head to the left she would be able to glimpse the Skogull Ranges, their barren masses rearing against the sky.
She did not turn. Her shoulders, she feared, were not yet strong enough to bear the crushing weight of memory. Straight-backed, she walked into the shuttered gloom of the inn.
Her instructions had been followed to the letter. The small private parlour had everything she had specified, including two separate ways of approaching and leaving it. A well-trained servant brought fruit, sweet biscuits and the astringent herbal infusions of the province, which the locals prized even above tea.
Four men entered the private parlour. None of them was father, brother, husband or lover of the veiled woman. Still, she stood up before them, she spoke her thoughts, received their answers and, as each left, she handed him an oiled silk package, bound with twine and sealed with wax. Each man kissed her hands as she passed over the package, save for the last who saluted her as he would his commanding officer.
If only that commanding officer still walked the earth, rather than being represented only by his relict: a hollowed shell, a walking ghost.
On their departure, her mind’s eye followed those packets outwards, blood-red trails across the land.
Each contained bonds made out to bearer, drawn on the great financial houses of Amsterdam, Venice and Vienna, all of whom had branches and correspondents in a quarter of the cities of the world, reaching even as far as fabled Batavia and the golden Americas.
Those bonds were dragons’ teeth in the hands of the men to whom she had vouchsafed them. Once dropped into fertile soil, legions would spring up.
She rang the bell; the servant made haste to bring in a cold collation and a chilled flask of the dry, aromatic, local wine.
This was only a pause in her journey; time to bate the horses and recruit her strength.
She had another sowing to attend to.
Peter Brenzaida had expected fury. He had expected disgrace. He had expected to be thrown in irons for his dereliction.
Instead, he was treated as if he were made of glass. He was led to a quiet, shuttered room where the housekeeper herself removed his bandage and cleaned his wound with a cloth soaked in some ointment which stung but left him feeling more composed. She re-bandaged him and instructed servants to bring warm water and towels.
He was supplied with fresh clothes, which must be the master of the house’s own (very fine, though they were a little too long in the legs and arms.) Further servants brought him fresh lemonade and a delicate chicken broth with a warm roll on the side.
Only once he was washed, fed and cared for did a quiet knock on the door herald the arrival of the master of the house himself.
“Lieutenant Brenzaida? I trust I find you in health — at least, so far as your recent privations permit?”
“Thank you. I am more grateful than I can say for your care of me, and that of your people. I cannot quite recall, but I think I escaped two days ago —”
The nights had been endless, lying in the thickets, terrified of foes human and and animal, dreams edged with fever, and waking terrors, and the difficulty of knowing one from another. But surely there had only been two of them?
The master of Pemberley gestured towards the bandage on his head. “Mrs Reynolds tells me that was a serious injury you suffered, so I shall try not to keep you from rest too long. Also, you may not be quite aware of how long you spent in captivity? Your party left Pemberley on the 9th of last month; that is, rather more than three weeks ago.”
Peter Brenzaida gaped. “So long? With no word of your sister? You must have been distraught.”
He bit his lip, but seeing neither condemnation nor discouragement in Mr Darcy’s expression, went on. “I was knocked insensible very early in the fight, sir, but I have been able to ascertain from my men that your sister and her attendant lady, Mrs Annesley, were captured unharmed and, indeed, behaved most nobly in offering ransoms for all the troop.”
“Ransoms I shall indeed honour.”
He had not intended to be importunate; he hoped he had not sounded so. “Sir, I thank you. But that was not the point I meant to make. What I can tell you is that from everything I have heard and those who told me of it were men of credit with no reason to lie, your sister and her chaperone were treated with utter respect and offered not the smallest suspicion of insult. Once liberated, I am persuaded my troops will swear that before any tribunal in the land.”
“A testimony worth much, indeed. Tell me, Lieutenant, did you see the commander of these insurgents at all?”
Not hard, at first sight, but a question fraught with peril, nonetheless.
“As soon as I was judged able to leave my bed I was summoned to his presence. Sir, I —”
Mr Darcy’s hand arrested him. “One moment. As you can see, I have taken steps to ensure we are alone. Nothing in our conversations need travel outside these four walls. But it is my sister’s life and good name at stake. I need you to know that what you may tell me here will not be shared with anyone, even the King, unless you give me leave. But please give me honesty, not diplomacy.”
Peter gulped. “I shall do my best.”
“Thank you. So. Do you think the person in question is in truth what he asserted himself to be: the legitimate successor to the Dukedom of Malham?”
He let his eyes fall shut. They remained shut for what felt an eternity. They were still shut when he answered.
He could have said many other, more politic things. But to a straight question, there was only one possible answer.
Mr Darcy exhaled. “Thank you.”
“Why?” Only after the word had been spilt, irrevocably, across this shuttered room did it occur to him that his question was outrageously impertinent.
The master of Pemberley did not seem to take it as such. He smiled. “Look at it from my point of view. My sister is captive in the hands of this man. Would I rather trust to a bandit pretending to a connection with one of the great families of Gondal or to someone who has known her from her earliest years? But did he vouchsafe to you anything of his intentions with regard to my sister?”
Peter nodded. “Not directly, sir, but it was — his men were most proper, one would have been delighted to take over a troop so well-disciplined. But there were hints dropped, nonetheless and my men were on the alert for them and relayed the information to me. My understanding is that Miss Darcy and her chaperone are currently held at some strong point on the Northern side of — of the Duke’s former estates.”
Mr Darcy tapped a forefinger meditatively against his front teeth.
“I daresay that means the Northern hunting lodge.”
“I said, did I not, that our two families had been most intimately connected for generations?”
In point of fact, he had not, but from the proximity of the two estates, the Darcy family’s close relationship to the King and, indeed, from the tone the master of the house had taken in this extraordinary interview, Peter had already ventured to infer it. He nodded.
“As you can imagine, I have been included in hunting parties on Malham lands since I was first able to shoulder a gun. The Northern lodge, though, is only for the serious hunters, those with experience and without fear. And they only visit at certain times of year. From the Northern lodge they hunt only wild boar. Wolves. Sometimes bear.”
He looked straight past Peter, as if recalling scenes and people long lost.
“The Northern hunting lodge was the original seat of the d’Ancona family, from their first arriving in these lands six hundred years ago and more. The ruins of their ancestral castle form its walls. It lies at the head of a thickly forested ravine. Regiments of Gondal’s finest troops could enter that ravine and be swallowed up as completely as the German forests swallowed Varus and all their legions. Their enemies would hunt them from the shadows; the bogs would suck them down; terror would stalk them by night; arrows pierce them in broad daylight. There are mosses in those forests swarming with mosquitoes and miasmas breathing pestilence. We cannot extract Georgiana from the Northern hunting lodge by force of arms, not even if we trade fifty men for one.”
“Fifty for one?” The scale of the military problem was inconceivable. And he had caused it.
Darcy appeared suddenly to come to himself. “Thank you for this intelligence. I shall send my report to the King, and you, I think, should concentrate on your recovery.”
So I can be fitter to die redeeming my mistake, Peter thought, as the door closed behind the master of Pemberley.
The interval at Longbourn had been one of unsurpassed tedium, not unmixed with awkwardness. His father-in-law had been sardonic and withdrawn, though Wickham — to be fair — had expected a lot worse from that quarter than he’d received. It almost made him angry on little Lyddie’s behalf. She might let her father’s neglect wash off her like water off a duck’s back (what an enchanting quality it was in a woman, the inability even to perceive neglect or antagonism, let alone resent it!) But it was profoundly wrong, nonetheless.
Dammit. Wickham was the brazen seducer of Clarence Duplessis’ youngest daughter. Admittedly, it was far from the hardest seduction he had brought off in his disreputable career but that was not the point.
The least Mr Duplessis should have done was to threaten him with cold steel, pistols at dawn or something dramatic and lethal along the same lines. He was not a good man himself — George Wickham had never been prone to self-delusion — but by God and the Holy Virgin, he hoped he would never so uselessly abandon any daughter of his own in similar circumstances. Even the odious Darcy had done more for Lyddie, though he was damned if he could see what Darcy’s angle was in the whole affair.
For a moment he permitted himself to wallow in malicious triumph. If the rumours he had heard were true (and he would easily be able to verify them, once he reached Fort Whitburn) what a slap in the face his sister’s abduction must be for that oh-so-proper lord of Gondal. And as for that mawkish little miss herself, it was so deliciously ironic that — for all the humiliation of that final collapse of his hopes in that direction — both brother and sister must no doubt be reflecting on how much better it would have been to settle for the evils of that match when they had had the chance.
He must make sure to spread the rumour as far and fast as possible once he had enough details to ensure Miss Georgiana’s credit and that of the Darcy family would be sunk beyond hope. His smile widened as he realised how apt a weapon his garrulous and indiscreet new mother-in-law was to achieving that task. And if his suspicions that Elizabeth had come to cherish designs — however hopeless — in Mr Darcy’s direction were true, how much more complete his revenge.
The coldness of Elizabeth’s earlier reception of him and the things Lyddie confided had been said over the tea-cups once the women of the family had been alone must have made more of an impression than he’d thought.
“I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands”. What an utter bitch Elizabeth was. Thank God he had never been serious about his hints of marriage to her.
Still, only fools looked to the past. It was as well Lyddie and he would be out of this place in less than a turn. There would be many opportunities on the borders, especially given what he knew. Also, given a delightful and energetic young bride, he would avoid many of his earlier stumbling blocks. His debts were cleared and the world was open before him.
Good grief, how long could his wife take saying goodbye to her family? He tapped his riding whip against his boot and, as if indeed it had some magical properties, Lyddie, her parents and a gaggle of sisters emerged from the house.
He arranged his features into the shape of doting-yet-stern husband.
“Lyddie, dear. We need to be off. If we do not make haste, we risk missing all the fun. Three days from now, I understand, there are to be grand divisional games and fêtes at the camp where we are stationed; the widow of a former Colonel of one of the regiments is funding a grand event in her late husband’s memory.”
“Lady Abruzzi? Arranging memorial games for the late Colonel?” Clarence Duplessis raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Let us hope she is not a student of Diodorus Siculus.”
That was the kind of oblique remark his father-in-law had been coming out with for days. Did he mean anything by them, or was it simply rubbing in the fact he, George Wickham, had not completed his studies at the University in Zalona, and that — for all his martial pomp and his new-minted lieutenancy — his father-in-law considered him an unarmed man in any battle of wits?
No matter. He pasted his most winning smile on his face, and extended his arm to his wife.
“Come, my dear.”
He had almost extricated her from her family but at the very last her idiotic mother grabbed out and caught her arm with both hands.
“Oh! My dear Lydia, when shall we meet again?”
Lyddie, he was pleased to see, seemed almost taken aback by this attempt to drag her back to a past which, like himself, she was already sloughing off.
“Oh, lord! I don’t know. Not these two or three years, perhaps.”
“Write to me very often, my dear.”
“As often as I can. But you know married women have never much time for writing. My sisters may write to me. They will have nothing else to do.”
She turned and without a backwards glance allowed him to help her into the carriage.
“What? Attend me; I must see for myself.”
In the end, it took three wagons to bring the wreckage of the Darcy state coach back to Pemberley. The pieces were carried from the wagons by straining, gasping and, occasionally, blasphemous soldiers and deposited carefully inside the nearest barn to be examined at leisure.
Why Georgiana had chosen to travel south in this gaudy, lumbering and antiquated equipage, Darcy could only speculate. However, on one point he was certain. Her choice had done the family inestimable service. This ludicrous contraption had rolled its last league.
He ordered the soldiers to examine every recovered fragment for clues.
He had assumed the task a mere matter of form, but a little time later the guard commander knocked on his door. Being bade to enter, he held out an envelope, addressed to Darcy, which had been found amid the cushions of a surprisingly intact interior portion of the carriage.
Internally, Darcy dismissed as preposterous the notion that the envelope had lain tucked among those cushions for weeks. So many successive dew-drenched mornings would have caused the ink to run; besides, there had been at least two violent thunderstorms that he could recall. Insects, birds, snails should have —
The guard commander did not look like a stupid man, and, as Darcy had reminded Mrs Reynolds, answered to the King.
Candour seemed the only viable option.
“We are being practised on, are we not?”
The commander gulped, then nodded. “That bears the impression of something left within the last day or so. Sir.”
“Indeed. And also within the last day or so Lieutenant Peter Brenzaida made his way to us.”
At the commander’s raised eyebrows he added, “I do not, let me make myself clear, believe Lieutenant Brenzaida to be party to any deception. It is patently obvious he is who he says he is, he is sincere in the information he wishes to give us and — according to my housekeeper, who from my earliest youth has shown herself to be a most formidable domestic apothecary — he is indeed suffering from a serious head wound. More serious, indeed, than those who permitted him to escape suspected. I daresay he was intended to reach us a day earlier — about the time, I judge, when that letter was planted amid the ruins of the coach.”
The commander of the guard nodded gravely. “I admit the premise. But to what effect?”
“If this paper is truly from Georgiana’s kidnapper —”
He looked down at the letter and blenched.
“He wants a quarter of a million thalers, paid to him in bearer draughts drawn upon a number of specific banking houses. The provisions for handover, I confide, are proof against various forms of treachery we might attempt. Especially since Georgiana remains in his custody until the ransom is paid.”
“Preposterous!” In this, at least, the guard commander could achieve sincerity. “What assurance do we have that he will honour his word?”
Darcy glanced down at the paper. “I gather the various soldiers captured with my sister are to be released as proof of good faith against the advance payment of ten per cent of the ransom. That is all he offers. But we need to consider Peter Brenzaida’s testimony.”
“That — lightweight?”
“I think,” Darcy said, drawing his rank around him like a cloak, “you should be more circumspect when speaking of a loyal officer of my cousin, the King.”
“Sir.” Wisely, the guard commander attempted no further apology, but turned the subject. “What do you plan to do with — that?”
Darcy turned the letter over and over in his hands. He had no doubt it would be substituted by a convenient forgery containing the same or similar words written in any hand but that of Julian d’Ancona, were he to do the obvious thing and bid the guard commander to take it forthwith to the King.
He reached a decision.
“In a matter of such moment, I believe I need to return to the capital and convene a family council with respect to our next steps. You and your troop will escort me, at least as far as Deadholm Barracks. New orders may have reached there by now. Ready your men to leave at dawn. Oh and warn them; our departure is bound to give rise to surmise, but ensure no particulars of this message are bruited abroad.”
The guard commander nodded. “The men won’t talk, sir. In any case, the letter passed through only two pairs of hands before reaching yours. William, who found it, he’s a good lad but book-learning isn’t his strong point. I doubt he could have read it, even had he dared. And Brenzaida?”
“The Lieutenant will remain here, under my housekeeper’s care. He needs to recover and, in any event, if others of his troop appear, whether by escape or release, he is the only man who can confirm that they are indeed his men, and not returning deserters or impostors.”
The guard commander saluted and departed. Darcy rang the bell and, when Mrs Reynolds appeared, apprised her of the latest developments. Her joy at the real prospect of Georgiana being shortly released from captivity was over-shadowed by the staggering size of the ransom being demanded.
Darcy looked very steadily at her. “Trust me. There is no price that is not worth paying in order to see my sister safely out of harm’s way.”
Their eyes met in perfect understanding.
“One final thing, Mrs Reynolds. I learn some of the estate workers have been coming into the chapel to say prayers for Georgiana’s safety. Please let them know I am most touched by their sympathy. Matters are at such a delicate stage I dare not give them any news, but if you could arrange the chapel flowers to be a little less sombre, it may convey a sense that there is cause for hope. I thought perhaps gorse. It smells sweet, and the blooms are warm.”
His housekeeper smiled. “When the gorse is out of bloom, then will kissing be out of fashion.’ That’s what they say, sir, and as for me, however deep the winter I can’t say I’ve ever seen a gorse bush wholly without flowers. They’re very fine at present. So’s the heather. Heather and gorse would complement one another, of course.”
Heather. In the private code: The answer to your question is ‘yes’.
Which, when it came to willingness to pay the ransom, both he and Mrs Reynolds knew to be so. But Julian had asked another question and Darcy dare not risk any error in interpretation.
He nodded. “Heather will do admirably. But accent it with bog asphodel, if it can be found. Pomegranate leaves for added greenery. They provide excellent contrast to the moorland flowers.”
He heard a sharply indrawn breath.
Four generations of Darcy brides had included bog asphodel in their bouquets. The Malham arms had featured a pomegranate since the first Duke returned from crusading in the Iberian Peninsula, a passionate, dark-eyed daughter of Granada on his arm.
His housekeeper’s voice was very steady. “If you’ll forgive my mentioning it, sir, your mother, Lady Anne, always loved the moors. And her favourite fruit was the pomegranate. I think such an arrangement would have pleased her more than anything else in the world.”
Yr Grace my most honoured nephew — so my niece Georgiana is found? Yr news delights me more than I can possibly express. I doubt not she can speedily be extricated from her current circumstances whether by force of arms or by the bribery to which such low fellows are always susceptible. That yr Grace has set yr hand to it makes it a thing already accomplsd. Though do not let your tender care for our young relative o’set your prudence. I humbly urge you to not be too generous in your initial treaties: should the scoundrel balk at your first offer of ransom, increase it reluctantly & only by the smallest increments: that shd show him the Crown of Gondal & the families of Moriarty and Fitzwilliam are not to be trifled with!
So with matters in this happy case you tell me the State Ball is to proceed? A most wise decision on yr part — this season has been they tell me most grievously disrupted already & for the State Ball to press so close upon the op’ng of the shooting season is a thing unheard of as it is & to push it later wd risk causing most invidious comment which is of all things most to be avoided, especially for one who (if yr Grace will forgive me) may be said to be yet young in rule as the proverb has it.
I feel most tenderly the care for my dear sister, yr late mother, which inflam’d yr Grace to suggest that the Ball be a costume piece in the garb of forty yrs ago & insist Molly will be her mother’s picture not just in face but in dress also, on an occasion when the dearest wishes of her whole family for so many years are to be fulfilled. How charming the thought! & any feather I can drop into the scales to weight my belov’d Molly’s happiness is, of course, at yr Grace’s uttermost disposal. But there is one part of yr request I must — with the utmost respect — decline. I do indeed hold both the necklace & the coronet of the Betrothal Parure here at Rosings in trust for my niece (dearer than daughter to me) — having, as hr mthr wd doubtless hve wishd, already presented the ear-bobs from the Parure to my niece on the occasion of her majority. In propriety, Molly shd only receive the necklace on the announcement of her engagement, but in this what is a few turns of the glass to anticipate that which all the Family have expected these fifteen yrs? The necklace, therefore, she may wear at the Ball with all good will. But NOT the coronet. That, yr Grace, must only be worn at hr bridal & the worst of luck will follow shd that immemorial custom be breachd.
You speak of my sending the jewels to her in good time & here again I venture — again, with the utmost respect, yr Grace — to observe that it is the Family custom on the occasion of the State Ball for my br. the Earl to host a dinner party on that eve, following which his pty proceed on to the Palace. Surely, therefore, it is far more eligible & will provoke less interest from those ruffians that evn yr care seems not yet to have blotted out of this land shd I send the package to my br. & have him hold it in his strongroom until the ladies go upstairs to change for the Ball. I trust I have yr approval?
In other matters, how is yr health? Are you using the wintergreen lotion regularly as I reminded yr Grace? Also, the weather grows hot bt do not, I urge you, be imprudent in the matter of opening windows…