Chapter Twenty-One - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
The house they had been seeking was curiously modest for this district. Neat and well-appointed, it nestled amid the neighbouring great mansions like a bantam amid a flock of peacocks. A discreet servant answered. As he turned to bear word of their arrival indoors Mama’s face grew stern.
“Now, Lizzie, recall you know nothing of the capital, and be sure to hold your froward tongue!”
She rapped Elizabeth’s knuckles smartly, to bring home the message. It stung, but Elizabeth — more shocked than she cared to admit by Mama’s near collapse in the hot lane, and, worse, by the flicker of recognition in Giulio’s eyes then his abruptly blank countenance before he turned away down the hill — made no retort. She stood a pace behind Mama, focussing on the slight, elegant figure at the far end of the parlour into which the servant had ushered them.
“Maria, may I introduce my second eldest daughter, Elizabeth? Lizzie, Miss Maria Vittoria.”
Their hostess’ dark dress had a finish Meryton society had never seen. The dark hair beneath her impeccable lace cap only looked the more perfect for its touch of frost.
“Your second daughter? So grown up? Harriet, what happened to time? Where did it all go?”
Mama shrugged. “Where it always goes.”
Miss Vittoria’s eyes widened. “Moment by moment, drop by drop, until there is a lake?” She was quoting someone, Elizabeth guessed and Mama knew whom, but the key was not something to which Elizabeth had access.
Mama turned to her. “Lizzie, this you need to know. When I was at Court, before I married your father, Maria was the confidential maid to her Grace the Queen. No-one knew more about the inner workings of the Household. Her judgment, too, was considered quite the nicest: many of the ladies of the Court contrived to obtain her opinion when they engaged their own maids and other domestic staff and she had the greatest of influence.”
“But —” Elizabeth began, and then she saw. The lady in front of her had been the late Queen’s spymistress. Under her direction the Queen had been given eyes and ears in most of the great households of the Kingdom.
She raised her eyes to meet the level gaze of their hostess, who gave a tiny, acknowledging nod.
“Miss Elizabeth, I don’t think any of the households where I was able to place someone ever complained. I’m not one to boast, but I’ve an eye for seeing when someone will suit a position and a nose for honest workers.”
Which was doubtless true, but left Elizabeth wondering how many of them remained out there, up and down the country, still loyal and honest, but to whom?
Miss Vittoria rang a bell and a maid-servant brought pastries and a choice of white wine or lemonade, both admirably chilled. Elizabeth chose lemonade and saw, with surprise, that Mama did, also.
“Now, Lizzie,” Mama said, when all necessary explanations for their presence in Gondal Town had been made, “share with us what you learned of Wickham. I collect, from hints you let drop, that you returned from your visit to Hunsford by no means as enamoured of him as you were when you left. Why?”
For the first time in longer than she could remember, Elizabeth lifted her eyes to meet Mama’s and returned a direct answer to a direct question.
“Because I learnt — please don’t ask me how, for that is not my story to tell — that he had connived with a Mrs Younge, then companion to Miss Georgiana Darcy, to get access to her charge, whom he had known as a child. Also — please, this must not go outside these four walls — that Mrs Younge promoted Wickham’s interest with Miss Georgiana, encouraged her to feel herself preferred by him, and concealed it from Miss Georgiana’s guardians, notwithstanding the trust placed in her —”
Miss Vittoria’s lips were set in a hard line. “Unwise, that. Too high above my sphere, of course, ladies’ companions, though sometimes in her Grace’s day one might contrive to send a hint. But Mrs Younge was a connexion of the Fitzwilliams through the Earl’s wife and she was a Campbell. An unchancy family, that; always seeking to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.”
A line of Mr Darcy’s scratched, painstaking handwriting became suddenly, oppressively vivid:
Lady Agnes Campbell had been due to accompany the Princess on her wedding journey, but at the last moment her father had withdrawn his permission.
“Would this Mrs Younge therefore also have been a connexion of Lady Agnes Campbell?” she enquired diffidently, and knew in the instant she had crossed a line.
“What have you heard of Lady Agnes Campbell?” Miss Vittoria’s voice was a whip-crack.
Elizabeth gulped. Then, very precisely, she said, “I heard she was intended to accompany the Princess to Gaaldine, on her wedding journey, but that her father withdrew permission at the last moment. And, as I also heard, though Miss Georgiana Darcy was then preferred by the King to replace Lady Agnes, that her — her brother became aware that Mr Wickham had been frequenting the house. Suspecting Mr Wickham might have been using Miss Georgiana to gain further intelligence of the Princess’ journey, Mr Darcy made a clean breast of what he knew to the King.”
Both Mama and Miss Vittoria paled, then both spoke at once.
“And he survived?”
“Holy Virgin, and I thought the man only stiff-necked and arrogant to those beneath him.”
“Go on with you, Lizzie. Maria knows what I mean.”
“I do indeed. But, both of you, have a care. Lady Agnes Campbell is now Lady Agnes Traquair. We thought we knew the reason why, but this puts a very different complexion on the matter. But it also gives us, perhaps, a route to find your sister and Mr Wickham. Though, perhaps, less reason to promote a match between them?”
Miss Vittoria’s winged, uplifted brows pointed the question, but Mama was shaking her head already.
“Lydia has made her bed and I have four other daughters. What would you have me do, Maria? For all our sakes, we must make up the match if we can and make merry over it and what may come after — comes.”
Afterwards, long afterwards, Elizabeth wondered how Mama could have known. Caught in the moment, she simply gaped. Before she could say anything, though, Mama rose decisively to her feet.
“Maria, please could you send this letter on my behalf to Longbourn? My husband may be looking for his second-eldest daughter so I wish him to know that Lizzie and I have departed on a pilgrimage to a certain shrine to the Virgin, not far from Gondal Town, to pray for a safe outcome for my unhappy youngest. Should there be any answering letter, not that I think it likely, I have directed it to go to Federico (don’t tell me you have forgotten him) in his capacity as almoner to the shrine. He will forward it to you, of course. Get word to me instantly. We shall be staying here.”
She passed a further slip of paper across to their hostess.
They were out of the house, making their way down Belmont’s slopes in all the full white glare of the afternoon, before Elizabeth plucked up courage to address Mama, who seemed to have developed two more dimensions in a day.
“We are not going to stay with Uncle and Aunt Gardiner, then?”
Mama smiled; a close-lipped, contained smile which neither reached her eyes nor reassured Elizabeth in the smallest particular.
“I would be delighted to see Penelope as soon as may be. But my —” She turned, briefly, to Elizabeth and her eyes opened unexpectedly wide. “That is to say, our objectives here will be better served from respectable lodgings. Your uncle would be bound to tell your father were we staying with him and that would be but a short step to being dragged home for appearance’s sake. So, Lizzie, suppose we live a little?”
All the way down Belmont Elizabeth grasped for the old certainties. All the way, they eluded her.
“Mrs Younge, my patience is not infinite. However, it is not my patience which is the issue here. Mr Wickham has worn out any goodwill he once possessed with the one person in the whole kingdom whose goodwill none of us can under any circumstances afford to lose. If he has not already told you so, I will. The last letter Mr Wickham sent to — the person in question — has been returned unopened. He has almost no interest left. Tell him: I truly am his last best hope. If he sees the truth of my message, he may contact me at this address, between three and five of the clock any day this week. Or, he may send word to my house. I know he knows my direction. Tell him so.”
Go to the Cathedral the message said. Go to the Cathedral, alone, and await the messenger fate sends you.
Harriet left Lizzie by the west door of the Cathedral of SS Geraldine and Augusta, giving her the kind of loud, fussy instructions as to what to see and when she should rejoin her at their lodgings which any mama might offer when allowing her daughter a morning’s freedom to see the capital’s sights while she herself attended to her devotions.
The side chapel, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom by Ambrosine XII, was deserted. Wisdom, she supposed, divine or otherwise, was not held in high esteem in the Gondal of King James. Unobserved, as women of her age were accustomed to be, she lit a candle and stood with head bowed and hands clasped as it burned.
She had intended to pray for her children. For Lydia, whom she loved, most of all for her carefree appreciation of life and whose cares were so obviously about to begin, whether she married Wickham or not. For Lizzie, who believed in a just, logical world and in her father and who was therefore doomed to an eternity of trying to reconcile the unreconcilable. For Jane, who was so blissfully uncomplicated and Mary, who had been born with a skin too few and who minded everything so dreadfully. And for Kitty, whom everyone else forgot about, meaning she needed a mother’s mindfulness all the more.
She ended up praying for the Queen, Felicia, who was, surely, beyond reach of any aid a fellow sinner could offer her. The Royal vaults went back a long way: some part of them must lay beneath her feet now. Many years ago Harriet had walked into those vaults: a cold, raw dawn, flaring torches, the damp pervasive stench of mortality and the Queen, hair loose on her shoulders like a bride’s or a wanton’s, stalking cold behind the catafalque.
She had been one of Harriet’s fellow ladies of the bedchamber: the highest in rank (she was some distant cousin of the Queen herself) and yet the first to welcome the physician’s daughter into that close, jealous sisterhood. Flora’s graceful carriage and straight, silky, black hair had occupied many of Harriet’s better dreams during that dream-like period.
Until the dreadful morning when she had heard the screams coming from the bed which Janet and Flora shared. Janet had woken to find the bed full of blood and Flora —
Holy Virgin, would she never be able to say it? Flora’s flower had been plucked, but not by someone who would have given the delicate care to the bloom which Harriet, given half a chance, would have supplied. Flora had been left with child. Whoever the father had been, he had disowned her. Flora had sought drastic remedies and paid the price.
To one who had died unshriven and in such circumstances, the already-overstuffed graveyards of Gondal Town were closed. Various prelates had washed their hands of Flora, noisily and with much sniffing.
“Lay her in the Royal vaults,” Queen Felicia declared peremptorily, as, with much priestly flannel, the fourteenth such objection was made.
“I, er, what?” said the unhappy prelate.
“Lay her among the Kings and Queens of Gondal. She is of the blood, and many of her kin who lie there have made worse ends. Lay her in the Royal vaults. I command it and I am your Queen.”
There had been fewer than half a dozen in the funeral party. The Queen and her remaining ladies made four. The cowering priest was the sole man present. Queen Felicia herself had read from the Bible in ferocious, beautifully precise Latin:
“Quocumque perrexeris pergam ubi morata fueris et ego pariter morabor populus tuus populus meus et Deus tuus Deus meus quae te morientem terra susceperit in ea moriar ibique locum accipiam sepulturae haec mihi faciat Deus et haec addat si non sola mors me et te separaverit.”
“Wherever you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people: your God, my God. Wherever death finds you, there will he find and take me, too, and we shall lie in the same grave. This promise I give you, I swear before that God. He may revenge himself three times over if anything less than death part you and me.”
Once, Harriet had dreamed of someone saying those words to her. Then had come Clarence and she had had no more dreams. She had had children, instead.
Harriet became acutely aware that she was no longer alone in the chapel. She barely slid her eyes sideways, but was conscious of the tall Prioress to her left, kneeling at the rail telling her rosary — a wonderful thing, that rosary, carved in a deep rich ivory, the beads marking each decade carved in the fashion of a musical instrumen: little fiddles, hautboys, lutes all complete.
Out of the side of her mouth, the Prioress breathed, “Be you comforted, my child, in your troubles. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. Should you be able to commit your family to paying two hundred thalers per annum as dowry for your youngest daughter, a marriage with the deplorable excuse for a gentleman in question is all but fixed. I trust you can consent to so much. Benedicte domine, gloria. In nomine patre et filii et spirtu sancti, Amen. Be here, at this hour tomorrow, my child, and may Christ’s blessings be upon you.”
Maria had told her of a small inn with a garden running down to the river, respectable and clean, famed for its table, whose proprietors might be trusted to keep the confidences of her guests. Harriet penned a short note to Penelope, proposing a time for an early dinner. She did not include a warning that news of the meeting was to be shared only between the two of them. Penelope had always had an instinct for the things unsaid, even when they had both been children. Of course, her father had been a physician, too.
She had not been there long, barely long enough to bespeak a meal, approve the appointments of the small, secluded arbour in which she had been seated, and sip a glass of the landlady’s celebrated rhubarb cordial when her cousin appeared.
“This is a surprise,” Penelope said, though her shrewd eye belied her words. “Were not you and Lizzie about your devotions?”
Harriet raised her eyes heavenwards, though her sentiments were considerably less elevated. “I trust I know you better than to believe all you hear.”
“It seemed unlikely, I agree. Especially given all that has been afoot. But people change, over time — Harriet, before we talk about my nieces, can I ask you one question and can you answer it in perfect frankness, as if we were girls once more?”
“You may ask. I may choose not to answer.”
“Then I shall draw what conclusions appear appropriate from your silence. Harriet, were you to be taken back thirty years, knowing the future, what choices would you make then? Would they be the same?”
She paused for barely a breath. “Not for a moment. I love my daughters — do not, Penelope, ever think I do not love them — but, Holy Virgin! I would that Clarence had wedded someone — anyone — but me. Yes: even at the price of my daughters being never born. But here we both are. They live, and so do I. Nothing can change that. I cannot leave him. The merest breath of scandal is death to a girl’s marriage prospects. Penelope, I have five daughters. And no fortune.”
“So you consent to our sending an express to Longbourn with Lydia’s marriage terms tonight, then?”
“Consent? You mean your messenger’s not left already?”
“My dear. I for one respect your judgment.”
“You do? Then, have it. He is a fribble, albeit one with a keen eye to the main chance, and certain connections which may either kill or cure his prospects. My youngest daughter is most perfectly matched to him in every respect: sense, taste and judgment. But none of that matters. Lydia gave him her maidenhead; he thought to take it cheaply and now the price turns out to be higher than he intended. But he will pay it, all the same. Send a messenger to compel your husband to send the express. Now. And after you have done so, we can have a comfortable coze together, cousin Penelope. But send the messenger first.”
The King announced a water pic-nic in his sister’s honour, and various sycophants-about-Court rushed to compose (or, in some cases, blatantly plagiarise) reams of verses comparing Molly to, variously, naiads; mermaids; sirens; Thetis; Aphrodite of the sea-foam and, in at least one case, a rusalka.
“Honestly, why would anyone think it at all flattering to be compared to something with green skin and long skinny arms, who drags shepherd boys into the river on hot summer days and holds them underwater until they die?” Molly complained to her cousin. Much to the sycophants’ annoyance he had been allotted the singular honour of sharing her barge during the journey upstream.
“Symbolism,” Mr Darcy responded, handing her aboard and settling her beneath the bullion-trimmed awning in the stern. “Poets always say ‘death’ when they mean ‘the culmination of passion’.”
(No-one would have mistaken Mr Darcy for a poet. His own gift to Miss Hooper, on learning of the water pic-nic, had been an elegant straw hat, trimmed with dark green silk ribbons and with the broadest of brims.)
Molly wrinkled her nose. “If the culmination of Sir L— P—‘s passion involves quite that much water-weed, I feel sorry for his mistresses. And more for his chambermaids.”
The nearest of her bargemen, notable for his height even among that well-built team, seemed suddenly overcome with a coughing fit. Mr Darcy ignored him, and, before himself sitting down amid the velvet cushions, signalled a servitor to hand his cousin chilled melon, ratafia and peaches with preserved ginger.
Ahead of them the sun blazed off the gilded canopy of the King’s barge, making them blink and screw up their eyes, despite all hat and canopy could do to shade them. A small figure, looking self-important even at this distance, was ceremoniously handed aboard; the trumpeters sounded, the musicians struck up, various liveried servants cast off, the bargemen’s oars hit the water as one and the ponderous parade of barges began to make their way upstream.
“Has your business in Town flourished?”
“Yes; better than I had hoped, thank you. I confide I may see everything concluded by noon tomorrow. Thank you, by the way, for your intelligence in that regard. I almost blundered badly, in a quarter where I —”
“You look hot. Let me pour you a cup of ratafia. It is most immensely refreshing, is it not? Not just the ratafia, but the river — and the greenery. I have missed so much of the most delightful months of the year by my duty at Court, so this party is trebly pleasant. Will your estates in the north claim you, now your business is over? I can see the attraction, but there will be much mourning if you are forced to miss the State Ball which — but do not tell anyone else, please, not before the formal announcement — is now fixed for this coming Tuesday.”
“So soon? Good heavens, I had not thought your mantua-maker could possibly have your ball-gown ready in time.”
“So did I. And so did she. But my brother can be terribly persuasive, even with mantua-makers. He said it must be ready, and so it will. He does not brook delay, if it can be avoided. In anything. Do you think it would be most terribly improper were we to wander off together when we land, into the shade of these delightful coppices I see along the riverbanks? It has been an age since I have had a chance to have a proper talk with you.”
“Your attentive poets will surely see it as a most particular attention and may take — matters amiss — in consequence.”
“The King will also see it as a most particular attention. Your paying it will relieve his brotherly concerns very opportunely.”
“Then, as a loyal subject, nothing would please me more than relieving the anxieties of the King. Provided I can do so without harm to my own honour or that of anyone else.”
Molly smiled, and handed her cousin a peach.
The beauties of the river and the littlenesses of the Court absorbed all the rest of their conversation, until at last the barge touched on the edge of a greensward fringed with birch, beech and hazel. Her brother the King was on the water’s edge to help his sister from the barge, but his gaze went first to his cousin, who nodded.
“A most delightful journey, your Grace.”
“And only the start of the delights planned, I do assure you. Sister, tell these stout fellows they may stand down and be at their own devices until the hour of Vespers, when we shall need to call on their services again. Now, onwards! Let the festivities begin!”