Chapter Twenty-Two - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
“Lizzie, a moment.”
She turned, to see an unfamiliar expression on her mother’s face: hesitant and open. Mama patted the bed and, uncharacteristically obedient, Elizabeth sank down beside her.
“I met your Aunt Gardiner for dinner, earlier. We had family business to talk over; not least, that I needed to ensure that if a match between Lydia and Mr Wickham can be contrived, she and Mr Gardiner will receive Lydia into their home and she will married under their countenance.”
“That will be a most signal advantage to her,” Elizabeth said cautiously.
“So it will. And so it would be if your father can be persuaded to receive the couple at Longbourn. That will take address — as much as you, Jane and I can contrive between us. But that is not what I wished to speak to you about. Your aunt told me that Mr Darcy showed uncommon civil to you all when you met him at Pemberley?”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Mama! What are you about?”
Mama tried to look nonchalant. “I? What would I be about? May not a mother ask about her daughter’s acquaintance? Introducing you to his sister, too: a most singular mark of regard. He must have unbent a great deal from when he stalked about the ballroom at Netherfield too proud to talk to anyone. So, Lizzie, were he to make you an offer, would you be minded to accept him?”
A sudden pricking of tears told Elizabeth — if she even had any doubt — her true answer; she only hoped her duck of the head had sufficed to conceal her thoughts.
If only that unlucky letter had come at any other time, so she could have concealed all knowledge of Lydia’s weakness from Mr Darcy. Though, at least she had this meagre comfort: he was the man of all men she could trust not to spread knowledge of her sister’s disgrace any further. But even if her sister’s marriage with Wickham had been concluded on perfectly honourable terms, the last thing Mr Darcy would dream of doing would be to accept Wickham, a man he justifiably despised, as a brother in law.
What a triumph for him, she often thought, could he know that the proposals which she had proudly spurned only four months ago, would now have been most gladly and gratefully received. Why only now could she understand he was exactly the man who would most suit her? And why, after giving her mercifully little trouble about Mr Darcy when he had been living less than a league and a half away, had Mama now got this bee into her bonnet about match-making him to her?
She rose to her feet, keeping steady with difficulty. “I collect, Mama, that you said that the evening service in the Cathedral had the finest choir in all Gondal, and that it would be a shame for me not to hear it while I am in town? I daresay we will be returning soon to Longbourn so this may be the last opportunity I have. And I beg you, Mama, do not waste time wondering about whether or not I would accept Mr Darcy’s offer. No such offer will ever be made. I am persuaded that the King himself would be a more likely suitor for my affections.”
She closed the door behind her, but not quite in time. Mama’s voice was low, but very distinct and she plainly had no notion of being overheard.
“And if the King himself were to offer, I’d tell him I’d see him dead and rotted before I’d hand a daughter of mine to the Ogre’s get.”
Her brother was the first to reach the chapel. He lit a candle and stood five yards away, head bowed in prayer. He wore the garb of a sober professional man of Gondal. His portrayal seemed more authentic, now Harriet knew him to be acting a part. To have always been acting a part.
The Crown Prince of Gaaldine arrived as a lean, grizzled Doctor of Laws in threadbare robes and yellowing bands. She would not have known him, but for the glance he exchanged with her brother as he entered the chapel. It had been twenty years, but some things one never forgot.
The silence grew overwhelming. It was almost a relief when Mr Darcy entered, wearing dark conventional clothes and an awkward expression, which rapidly became more than awkward as the Crown Prince (who had, it seemed, not lost his habit of meddling over the intervening decades) outlined his plan to resolve their dilemma.
If, as it appeared, the King were hell-bent (and in the King’s case there could surely be no other destination) on announcing his cousin Mr Darcy’s formal betrothal to the King’s sister Miss Hooper at the State Ball that coming Tuesday, an honour desired by neither of the proposed parties, then the only solution was to ensure that by that date an irrevocable obstacle existed to the marriage of one or both of them. A marriage, the Crown Prince pronounced, with a casual wave of his hand, solemnised privately tomorrow between Mr Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Duplessis, his friend’s second-eldest niece, would solve the problem most admirably.
John’s splutter told Harriet this was the first he had heard of such a plan. She avoided his eyes.
The intended groom sounded equally bemused if (reassuringly) less horrified.
“I do not dislike the idea, truly —”
Surely she had read her daughter aright, surely just this once? Penelope, too, whose judgement was always so nice? Words tumbled from her lips, unstoppable.
“If it’s Lizzie’s answer you’re worried about, as her Mama I am persuaded that if she really were set against accepting an offer from you, sir, she would have no hesitation in telling me. Or, for that matter, you. She always was a wilful, outspoken, headstrong girl. But I tried to broach the subject, and all I got was that she had no hopes of such an honour, which, as you will appreciate, sir, is as much encouragement as is seemly for any girl of character to give to a gentleman whose proposal is, as yet, hypothetical.”
“Harriet—!” John’s despairing cry was abruptly bitten off. Probably, despite their hallowed surroundings, the Crown Prince had kicked him.
Mr Darcy almost essayed a smile.
“Madam; I concur. Miss Elizabeth is admirably frank and would not toy with a man’s hopes, whether directly or at one or two times removed. But can I honourably ask a woman of character to enter into a clandestine marriage? Holy Church forbids —-”
“Not a clandestine marriage.” The Crown Prince sounded like a wearied priest explaining the more obvious portions of the catechism. “A private marriage. After all, what marriage could be considered clandestine if blessed by the bride’s mother and uncle?”
“Perhaps, but ”
“Surely you forget? I am my cousin’s intended betrothed; my presence at his wedding to another would render it the reverse of clandestine.”
A cloaked and hooded figure stepped into the chapel.
“Molly?” Mr Darcy sounded aghast. “Have you run mad? If you are discovered here, the King will have you hauled to the Catiff’s Tower.”
“He would, you know,” the Crown Prince agreed. “Kings do that sort of thing all the time. It’s an elevation in rank which has a supremely bad effect on a man’s character. And is quite corrosive of brotherly sentiments.”
The new arrival thrust back her hood. Harriet could just discern the prim features of the ten-year-old harpsichordist in the woman before her.
“I don’t care. When I received your message I had to come.” Miss Hooper’s lips were tight and Harriet sensed she was very close to tears. Automatically, she reached into the recesses of her own cloak and pulled out her flask, holding it out to the younger woman.
“Here. Brandy will steady you.”
Miss Hooper glanced round at them all, accepted the proffered flask and took a lady-like sip.
“Your health, and that of your family,” she said formally and handed it back to Harriet. Harriet raised it to her lips, and swallowed heartily.
“Yours and that of the better part of your family.”
Darcy snorted: whether with amusement or horror, Harriet could not tell.
“Amen to that,” Miss Hooper said grimly. “But, to business. I spent some days during the early summer with Miss Elizabeth Duplessis at Elbe and would be honoured to welcome her to our family, should she be willing to join it. But — please, cousin, do not take this as a personal affront — but situated as we are, you cannot in all conscience ask the lady to marry you without warning her that
my brother cannot abide being thwarted and you are likely — at best — to find yourself stripped of your estates as thoroughly as the Duke of Malham was and with no prospect of their ending up within my disposition. Tell Miss Elizabeth you approach her as a poor man, and ask for her answer accordingly.”
Mr Darcy looked at his cousin with an affection which took Harriet’s breath away. There was nothing of the lover in it, she could have sworn, and yet her heart ached for sheer envy.
“I shall, of course, make that clear. But —”
Here he turned to Harriet, rather nervously. Assessing her to be the person who might judge whether her daughter’s suitor could keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed no doubt. Harriet suppressed a snort of amusement. As if Lizzie would pay the smallest attention to her opinion.
“But?” she enquired.
He paused. “The three kingdoms have been disturbed for as long as I have been alive. Earlier. My father took that in mind, and made provision accordingly. Following his example and encouragement, I have added to it, over the years.”
How old was Mr Darcy: twenty-five? Twenty-six? Born into a great family within a country on the cusp of civil war or into the juddering aftermath of civil war narrowly averted. Harriet understood what he was trying to tell her, and no-one else was saying anything. Clearly it was up to her.
She made her expression bright, open and engaging. It had been so easy to do that back when she had been Lizzie’s age and at Court.
His nervous tongue swept across dry lips.
“Without Pemberley, without my estates here, I would be a poor man — comparatively poor, at least. But I do have investments outside the three kingdoms, should I lose my lands within. Not much, admittedly, on which to support a wife and family: some few deposits in specie, a couple of farms, a vineyard or so, the odd olive grove, a sawmill, a small tannery —”
Harriet found herself hard-pressed not to giggle. In her terror at the thought of leaving her girls unprovided for, in her utter despair at Clarence, who would not get up off his narrow, bony backside and exert himself to that end, she had — it shamed her to recall, to be honest, but she had been so desperate at the time — leant on Lizzie to accept Mr Collins. Who was a clerk on a stipend at the mercy of a capricious and cold-hearted patron without even one farm, vineyard or tannery to his credit. Holy Virgin, she needed to apologise to Lizzie.
Miss Hooper eyed her cousin with the clear-eyed amusement of one who had known him since before he was out of skirts.
“Judging by the long ballad about the outlaw wooing the castle lady with which Miss Duplessis delighted us one evening in Elbe, I think in your place I would leave off mentioning your trifling saw-mills and olive groves until later and emphasise the expropriation of your wealth.”
Mr Darcy laughed out loud. “This ballad?” He hummed a bar or two. “Georgiana has been wild for it for weeks. Are all the maidens of Gondal determined on wedding bandits?”
The expression on the Crown Prince’s face could only be described as ‘smug’. “So that song has travelled as I hoped? And yes, indeed they are — at least, Charis seemed far more enamoured of me when I returned as an exile than when we first stood up together in the Cathedral and made our vows.”
“And how is our cousin?” Miss Hooper enquired.
“Well. Indeed, if the latest reports I have of her are correct, better than well.”
Harriet’s ears pricked. Had that been two women speaking, she would have known what to make of “better than well” but in a man, and a foreigner, who could tell? She slid her eyes sideways, but could make nothing of her brother’s expression.
“I am glad to hear it. But this is not the place to swap family gossip, but to create it. After all, it is not the first time that you have exerted yourself to rid me of a suitor. People may talk.”
“People always do. I am only relieved that all you require of me this time is my wits and my abilities to make connections. Though, to be fair, I should have had to turn my attentions to Lord Moran even if there had been no lady in the case. But I rejoice that these hands were able to root out a thorn bush from your path.”
John looked up; Harriet thought she detected a jealous, even an angry tinge to his expression.
“Not quite single-handed. Dismembering is a two-man job, after all.”
The chapel’s air was laden with stale incense, snuffed candles and a chill, mouldy reek, as of grave-clothes. For a moment, Harriet thought Mr Darcy might be physically sick.
She could have strangled John: yes, and dismembered him on her own account. He had not spent the last twenty years trying (and mostly failing) to run a country estate on a shoestring, starting from a position of blank, town-bred ignorance. If he had, he would not assume that women knew nothing of butchery. Nor would he assume them unaware how thin the line ran between privation and plenty, even for minor gentry. The difference, one might say, between saving blood to make black puddings and wantonly letting it swirl down the drain. The difference between avoiding inconvenient truths in front of a daughter’s wealthy suitor and rubbing his nose in them.
“I was there,” Mr Darcy said, thickly. “Not when the barrel was opened: that honour belongs to the consignment clerk in His Grace’s pantries, and the kitchen-maid who happened to be distracting him from his duties at the time the barrel arrived. But I was among those summoned to see — it. I do not think, sir, Gaaldine’s reputation was enhanced among those witnesses.”
The Crown Prince’s tone held a searing heat it had lacked before. “Whether Mycroft the First married the woman or not, David was our uncle; mine and my brother’s. Tell me, sir, what the penalty would be in Gondal for the cold-blooded murder of the King’s close blood kin? Of, say, yourself, or your sister?”
He sounded like a man without doubt of the answer. That surprised Harriet not at all. Half a dozen treasonous plots had been uncovered since the accession of Prince James. She had seen the heads on pikes above the gates of the capital.
Mr Darcy’s voice was low, but thunderous. “If someone were to harm Georgiana —”
“You would, of course, petition the King to ensure that the culprit suffered the fullest penalties that the law allows.” Now, the Crown Prince’s voice was silky smooth. “Including quartering the miscreant’s body after life was extinct and displaying suitably chosen portions in elevated positions around the principal cities of the land, to deter any imitators.”
“I would.” The admission was barely audible, but it was made, nonetheless. The Crown Prince gave a brief, satisfied “huff.”
“It would not bring Georgiana back. It did not bring David.” Miss Hooper’s voice was quiet, contemplative. “I thank you for it, all the same.” She turned to Harriet. “I expect you don’t know who we are talking of? That’s the problem with families. They always assume one knows all the particulars.”
“Well, we cannot stay here to discuss them.” The Crown Prince had his head cocked on one side. “Provided I hear no word of refusal from Miss Duplessis we will see you at your lodgings at ten of the clock tomorrow. I shall bring the priest. In the meantime, we all have our duties to attend to; most importantly you, Darcy. We can’t have that rogue Wickham wriggling out of his obligations at the last minute.”
Mr Darcy took the familiarity better than Harriet would have expected. He nodded, and departed. The Crown Prince set off at a rapid, scholarly scurry in the opposite direction. John cast a lingering glance over his shoulder at Harriet, then followed the Crown Prince. Harriet and Miss Hooper were left alone.
Harriet stared blankly at the guttering candles.
“I’ve one daughter being married within the hour and maybe another tomorrow. Somehow I didn’t think it would feel like this.” She burst into tears.
Miss Hooper looked at her for a moment. Then she linked her arm in Harriet’s.
“Come,” she said. “I suspect you have suffered a good deal. Let us find a wineshop and pledge the health of your daughters.”
Harriet looked at her. Then she looked round, to ensure they remained unheard.
“Ma’am!” she hissed. “You are the first ranking lady of Gondal. The first ranking lady of Gondal does not go into wineshops.”
“All the more reason why no-one will look for her there.”
“Respectable women do not go into wineshops.”
Miss Hooper leant back against the elaborate relief of a nearby sepulchre, regarding Harriet with an expression that somehow managed to convey both primness and amusement.
“Are we respectable? Much as it pains me to admit it, my brother is the worst man in the three kingdoms; yours, I collect, is wanted on both sides of the Border.”
Harriet sighed. “And my youngest daughter is within the hour entering into a patched up marriage with a man with whom she has been living this past fortnight. I agree. It seems we are not respectable women. Let us find a wineshop.”
They were on first name terms before finishing the third cup.
Somewhere into the second flask of a smoky, complex Angrian red, Molly put her head on one side.
“I think I owe you an apology. Though, to say, truth, my family were always much happier that I should display myself at the harpsichord than, for my own part, I would have chosen. Nonetheless, for my part in it, I am truly sorry for what I inflicted on you in my youth.”
For a moment Harriet paused. Then she laughed; great, open-throated peals of laughter that hurt, like lesions ripping free beneath scar tissue, leaving her raw, but open to healing at last.
Heads turned in the wineshop, from the serving man to the little country priest sitting two tables away, drinking wine so watered it barely held a tint of pink. His mild, round-eyed gaze held no hint of chastisement, just curiosity, deep and innocent as the waters of Lake Elderno.
“Truly, it was those memories that resolved me that I should require none of the girls to torment themselves — or others — with music, unless they truly had a taste for it.”
Something, perhaps the presence of the priest, though he surely he could not hear them above the noise of the wineshop, prompted Harriet to wholly uncharacteristic frankness. “Though I grant, my feelings on that point may have done them a disservice. My indulgence when it comes to music may come back to bite the girls, after all. Women need to have accomplishments, everyone tells one, or they will die unwed. “
Molly’s feathery brows drew down over brooding caramel eyes. Her voice dropped to a whisper.
“Say they so? And yet, the two accomplishments that have brought the most suitors to my door have been, first, having a brother ascend Gondal’s throne and, second, his promising me the attaindered estates of the Duke of Malham. And those accomplishments are not something attainable by many girls, however long they practise.”
Unwilled, Harriet’s hand stole out so it rested on Molly’s arm. “And if practice could achieve them, I’d be the first to urge neglect. For I think those accomplishments have not brought you happiness? In church, earlier, you spoke of loss and grief; no, it may surprise you, given what I expect you’ve heard about me, but I can listen and keep my counsel.”
Molly tipped up her head, like a flower turning to the sun after rain. Harriet was lost.
“I do not doubt you can listen. And I trust you, too and that is a blessing beyond price. I have few people whom I can trust.”
She numbered on her fingers as she spoke. “Giulio and Jeanette, my confidential servants. My three cousins. You. Your daughter, and her friend Charlotte. Those two we met in the church.”
What had Gondal become? The first lady of the land, with ten people, no more, whom she dare trust.
One of the names caught like a barb in Harriet’s memory. Giulio. What, indeed had Gondal become?
Her grip tightened on Molly’s arm.
“Tell me. Do you have acquaintance in Belmont?”
“No. It is not a part of town I care to frequent.”
The shudder beneath Harriet’s suddenly too-sensitive finger-tips told her that Molly, though a decade younger, had heard the Ogre-tales too.
No. A cold finger ran right down Harriet’s spine.
That the Ogre of Belmont had been a nobleman so well-connected that not even his death at the hands of the father of one of his victims could reveal his identity was common street-talk in Gondal Town. But the great houses of Belmont were much alike, each shrouded behind their blank facades to the front, and grey-stoned walls to the rear. Few people, if any, knew which house it had been. Only Harriet, one never-forgotten night, had seen the garden gate and the great walnut tree which overhung it. The gate from which two days ago a man had emerged, a man whom Lizzie had recognised and named “Giulio”. Who had refused to acknowledge her.
The wine bucked up into her throat: sour and repugnant. She fought to keep her voice under control. “Your confidential man, Giulio, had not, therefore, any business in Belmont, three days ago?”
Molly’s face went the colour of skimmed milk.
“Three days ago, I gave him permission to visit his married sister. She lives four miles past the South Gate, on the road to Charlescut Halt. I have taken Easter gifts there for her children. He remained until late: it was almost dark when he returned.”
“Ah. So he would have no business even passing through Belmont, let alone visiting a house there?”
“Any particular house?” The other woman’s effort to sound nonchalant was a lamentable failure. Harriet leant across the rough boards of the wineshop table, scarcely noting that her sleeve dipped into a spilled puddle of Angrian red from the shared flask.
“A great grey mansion with an ancient walnut tree overhanging the garden gate. Rumour has that it was once owned by your lady mother’s first husband. And you will know the other rumours which went with that assertion.”
“Oh!” That was a gasp of pure pain. “I understood that house had been razed to the ground and a m-memorial garden planted there.”
Harriet shook her head. “Whoever told you so, told an untruth.”
Beneath the table’s shade, she glimpsed Molly’s hands, twisting convulsively. Ruthlessly, she pressed on.
“I doubt it’s the first lie you’ve been told by the same source. So. We can assume that the house descended from father to son, as is the hallowed way of Gondal.” She did not even attempt to stop the bitterness leaking into her voice. “And also, that your confidential man’s been talking to him, behind your back.”
The other woman’s voice was flat, as if repeating a lesson learned by rote.
“We are betrayed. We are all of us betrayed. And what can we do? I do not even dare send a message to my cousins, for who can I choose as the messenger? If Giulio is false, who can we trust?”
“Trust to the Lord, my children.” They turned in alarm, to see that the little priest had, with silent feet, moved to within arms-length. He made a gesture of blessing.
“Come with me, now, to the Bishop of Zalona. I am bound to him in any event, but my message touches on your affairs, or so I believe. And sanctuary cannot be refused, to those in need.”
The marriage of Lydia Duplessis to George Wickham passed off as well as Darcy had hoped it would: that is, the bride looked ecstatic and the groom looked present. Her uncle and aunt, the only others in attendance apart from the priest, seemed resigned rather than rejoiced at the match, which confirmed his initial impressions of their good sense. They were duty bound to provide a wedding breakfast for their niece and her new husband, and, while they had civilly extended an invitation to him, he had as civilly declined. He left them at the church door, and retreated to his town-house.
The same footman was awaiting him. Same footman; different livery. This was not a summons from his cousin but from the King. Horrifying recollections of that morning’s indiscretions danced across his mind. He set his face. “Well?”
“You are bid to the Palace, my lord. No, sir, as you are. No time is to be lost.”
The King received him in the same room as before. Unmitigated black. That described the King’s garb and his expression, both. There was an officer standing off to one side; not restrained in irons but plainly under arrest, notwithstanding. The King gestured to him as Darcy entered.
“Soldier, repeat to the lady’s brother what you have just told me.”
Brother? What could this officer possibly have to do with Georgiana?
The officer gulped. “Your grace. Sir. I have the honour to be the officer commanding Deadholm Barracks.”
From the King’s expression, that sentence would have been better expressed in the past tense. From the officer’s, he knew it. The same might shortly be true of his life. Did he know that too?
Darcy’s guts knotted in sympathy, even as his terror for Georgiana made him tremble within.
“Deadholm Barracks is the best part of two days journey south-east of Pemberley.”
The words were neutral; the tone came out accusatory. The officer, white-faced, nodded, and licked dry lips.
“True, sir, but it was the nearest place from which an honour guard of adequate size could be mustered.”
“Plainly it was not of adequate size, soldier, otherwise they would have successfully escorted Georgiana to her destination, rather than apparently vanishing into thin air.”
The King’s fury was palpable. One word, though, struck Darcy like a hammer blow.
“Escort my sister? Escort her where?”
The King spread his hands. “Why, to court, coz, of course. I intended Georgiana to make her Court debut at the State Ball, as some poor recompense for her being deprived of her debut at the proper time by reason of the late King’s — illness. It was to have been a surprise for you.”
No. She was to have been a hostage against my refusing Molly Hooper.
Years of self-control gave Darcy the advantage. He nodded a brief acknowledgement to the King, then fixed the officer with a glare as cold and precise as he could command.
“How many were in this troop? When did they depart? Have any returned?”
Confronted with concrete questions, the officer stumbled through a moderately coherent account. A troop of twenty men, one sergeant, one corporal and a farrier. None of them heard from this last se’nnight. The messengers sent to Pemberley reporting that (save for a handful of deserters) the party had departed in good order accompanying Miss Darcy and her chaperone. Less than a day later, horses, carriage, passengers, troopers and all had vanished into the upland mists.
The King’s anger burned like a slow match beside him; Darcy could feel it, even before the questioning turned to the officer commanding this motley troop. One might get a sense of the young Lieutenant Brenzaida from what his commander did not say, even more than from those he reluctantly did.
Darcy’s voice sounded like a thunderclap over Calder Spout of an August afternoon.
“And even knowing what you knew about your subordinate’s competence, you only dispatched a messenger to find out what might have become of Lieutenant Brenzaida, his wholly inadequate company and my sister Georgiana when his delay in returning to Deadholm Barracks had extended to a full forty-eight hours?”
At that point, the officer fell at his feet.
“My Lord! Forgive me!”
Some turns later Darcy found himself in supple, well-worn riding gear, a light helmet upon his brow, a sword at his hip and a troop of men in Royal livery at his back. They were on the very edge of the Great Northern Road: riding at the King’s command to find out what had befallen the Royal kin — Georgiana —and to wreak suitable vengeance.
The steps that had taken to this cold, dark place were blurred, inconsequential. He had stood up in some elegantly appointed chamber in the Palace and shouted. Even the King, he dimly recollected, had recoiled.
All that occupied his mind was Georgiana: Georgiana taken by bandits in the wilderness. Into some dark, forgotten chamber of his mind the faint, dim recollection of a chapel intruded. Had he had leisure to think; had it not been Georgiana’s life and honour at stake, he could have managed better. He should have sent some sort of apologies, explanations: the very things at which he was so incompetent.
He had not.
For the moment, the only thing that mattered was Georgiana.
“Forward!” he yelled at the troop behind him.
Darcy rode north.
At approximately the same time, a middle-aged matron and her daughter (who might have been thought almost a beauty had it not been for her tendency to draw her hood over her head so obscuring her fine features) were embarking on a coach bound for the north-east. As the matron persisted in telling anyone in the coach who cared to listen, she had a daughter well married in Gondal Town these two days past and she and her daughter had to be home to prepare a welcome for a new son and brother to the family.
Elizabeth leant her head against the cool glass of the coach and let her tears leak silently down.