Chapter Two - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
Lydia pouted. “Why did the All Souls Night Ball have to be cancelled?”
Lizzie rolled her eyes; Harriet could not but sympathise. Her youngest had been asking the same question for days, so if she did not know the answer by now it could only be because she had refused to hear it. Which, Lydia being Lydia, was almost certainly true.
“Lydia, be reasonable,” Jane said. “How can you think of dancing, when we are in mourning for the King? And such recent mourning, too.”
Lydia tossed her head; the firelight caught and flung back red-gold sparks from her soft brown curls. A sure way to captivate men, that. In Harriet’s younger days, she too had cultivated a repertoire of head-tosses and hair flicks, practising for hours in front of the mirror. If Jane failed to make an advantageous marriage, then Lydia would and save them all. Not too soon to think of it, either; Lydia would be fourteen next month. Following the Princess’s example, marrying young was all the rage. After all, what was there to wait for? The whole business was a game of chance. One might be as easily deceived in one’s husband at forty (look at Miss Bates and her so-called merchant sea-captain!) as at fourteen.
What was more, for all Jane and Lizzie’s disapproving looks, Harriet took Lydia’s point. A girl’s time to shine was all too brief. One winter’s cancelled balls might mean the difference between prosperous marriage or starveling spinsterhood. Nor would King Ambrosine have expected any girl Lydia’s age to make such a sacrifice. On that point, she knew herself on certain ground.
The old queasy regret stirred in her guts. Defying Clarence’s sardonic eye, she took a gulp of negus to quell it. How easily she could knock him from his affected perch, if only she chose. Suppose, after all these years, she told him about that All Souls Night Ball at the Palace? The night the King had paused on the staircase and beckoned to the Queen’s newest lady-in-waiting with a meaning she could not mistake.
The staircase’s shallow treads had been shaped for men in pantofles and women in chopines. So gentle runs the way to Hell. They were at the dark, iron-bound door to the Royal Apartments by the time she found her courage.
Saying “No” had been the hardest thing she had ever done in her life, childbirth included.
Five live births and one miscarriage later, she wondered if it had also been the stupidest thing she had ever done in her life, childbirth included.
It had been rash, she’d known at the time, dancing so many times with the King. But the new silk gown was so gloriously flattering and the attention of the company as exhilarating as first-class brandy — not that she’d known much of brandy, then. Back in those days, she hadn’t needed to. John had tugged her by the sleeve, telling her to moderate her wild ways and his companion, the hostage prince, had looked down his nose at her, both of which had fired her to keep going.
She had all but made up her mind to accept the invitation, should it come. Not even the thought of Clarence, unavoidably absent from the ball, had stopped her. After all, he would be her husband in a month and husbands in such case customarily did well, whether they knew in advance or not.
No. In the end she had refused him for the sake of the Queen, who had never enjoined such loyalty on her ladies-in-waiting, nor, overtly, blamed them when they failed to show it.
You fool! Her still raw heart cried out into the void. She never knew what it cost me, but I did it anyway.
But John, irony of ironies, had leapt to the obvious conclusion; that she had offered her honour to the King and failed to keep him longer than the night itself. A wanton, and, worse, a failed wanton. Not a conclusion he ever uttered, being a gentleman. Being a gentleman, he merely looked it, instead. Who can refute an unspoken accusation?
For her sake, John, I gave up more than you could possibly imagine and for no hope of reward. Face it: I loved her too, John. And better.
Ghostly thoughts for an All Souls Eve, indeed. The Queen dead these ten years, the King laid to rest beside her mere weeks ago, and John as good as dead, far away across the border with never a word of farewell or remembrance to her.
She picked up the little brass bell on the table beside her and rang it, hoping her wolfish thoughts were not visible behind her smile.
“Since there’s no ball, girls, let’s celebrate the old-fashioned way. We’ll play games to predict who everyone’s going to marry, and have a nice, comfortable time telling ghost stories. My sapphire earrings as a prize for the best.”
Lizzie would win, no doubt; she had inherited her facility with words from her father, as well as her dark good looks. Lizzie, at least, could be trusted to lend the earrings to Jane, whom they suited so well, whenever it was most necessary for Jane to make an impression. Were she to make a present of them to her eldest, Kitty or Lydia would constantly demand them and Jane would yield every time and never get a chance to wear them herself.
“Mrs Hill, would you be so good as to bring in apples for us all? Oh, and a silver paring knife. Raisins, brandy, and the snapdragon bowl, too. And another jug of negus. We’re going to have a proper All Souls’ Eve.”
Clarence rose, ostentatiously folding the rug he had begun to drape over his knees of an evening. He picked up his book and his spectacles.
“I shall be in my study and propose to retire early. Try not to be too noisy in your celebrations of death. This is a nation in mourning, after all.”
“So,” Lizzie concluded, her eyes dancing despite the horrors that she had just recounted, “ended the wedding night of the Lady of Zalona.”
Kitty’s hand went to her mouth. “Lizzie, that was so horrid! I declare, I shan’t sleep a wink tonight.”
“And was it really Lord Laureston’s skeleton behind the curtain?” Lydia demanded, eyes wide.
Lizzie shrugged. “How can I possibly know? I wasn’t there.”
“Of course you weren’t.” Jane smiled affectionately at Lizzie. “My clever sister would never have consented to marry a man who kept the corpse of his first bride hidden in a chest at the foot of the marital bed. She would have been astute enough to detect his singular preference before allowing him to put the ring on her finger.”
Harriet fumed internally. Jane was in such looks tonight, and spirits, too. If his Grace Ambrosine XVII had only had the fortitude to stay alive for two months longer, tonight Jane would have been have been gracing the Longbourn Assembly. The sapphires would have been sparkling at her ears, reflecting and enhancing the peerless blue of her eyes. Most importantly, the new tenant of Netherfield Park would have been there. He must have been: the All Souls Eve ball was the highlight of the district’s autumn season. All their hopes could have already been on the high road to fulfilment. If only King Ambrosine had lived another two months.
She suppressed her sigh. Merry and bright, the Mistress of the Wardrobe had always told them, that’s what the Queen needs to see about her. And, if one’s spirit quailed, there was always ratafia and faking it.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt who’s won the earrings. Lizzie, bend your head and I’ll put them in.”
Lizzie ducked her head. “Let Jane wear them tonight, Mama. I have my garnets, and Jane has only her little gold knots. They’re her colour, too.”
“And so they are. Well, if you insist, Lizzie dear. Just for tonight.”
The earrings slid into Jane’s ears and lay along the cream-coloured skin of her neck as though they had been crafted for her, and her alone. Clarence’s courting gift, Harriet thought, and in those days she had been as fair as Jane and her eyes bluer —
Treacherous tears welled up. She turned, so the girls might not see, blotted her eyes with the edge of her napkin and rang the bell for another jug of negus.
At which moment a shattering fusillade of knocking sounded on the front door.
For a moment, Harriet seemed unable to take in what the butler was telling her. A carriage losing a wheel, right at the bottom of the lane? The new tenant of Netherfield, his sister, and a friend of great estate, stranded three miles from their objective and asking for the hospitality of Longbourn? Then her fogged mind cleared.
“Well, don’t dawdle, man. Bring them in at once. Now. This instant. And have James and Frank assist their people in fetching their baggage and righting the carriage.”
The Blessed Virgin had answered her prayers, no matter how inauspicious the season, and while they had been deprived of the ball, the company had come to them, all the same. Tears of relief swam in her eyes, so that the three tall, cloaked figures in the doorway blurred into dim apparitions.
“A carriage accident? Oh, what a shocking thing to happen. Come in, come in and sit down. You must be frozen and so shaken, too. Girls, make space on the sopha. These are our new neighbours. Kitty: find Mrs Hill and tell her to have the maids prepare the Blue Room, the Yellow Room and the Ottoman Room. And to bring brandy — and tea — and soup — and cold meats — Oh, what a poor All Souls Night you have had of it so far, but let us remedy that. What may we have the pleasure of getting for you?”
She babbled, and knew she did: blame the negus and hope coming all unheralded out of blackest despair. Then her vision cleared. She took in the shorter man’s clenched, agonised silence, the odd hunch of his shoulder under his cloak, his lopsided walk.
She knew what she was seeing. And before she had been the wife of Clarence Duplessis, of Longbourn; before, even, she had been the maid of honour to the Queen, she had been the child of Hamish Watson, physician to the Court.
“What can you get us? As you can see, my brother is injured. If you could dispatch a man to raise a physician —” the woman in the absurdly fashionable hoop skirts pleaded.
“We have no physician in the district,” Jane said, respectful and apologetic. “And I fear Mr Perry, our apothecary, is from home tonight. His eldest daughter is very close to her lying in —”
“No physician!” The woman seemed caught between horror that she had arrived in a place so provincial as to lack a physician within call and, Harriet grudgingly acknowledged, real concern for her brother. “No apothecary either? Then what are we to do?”
“In these parts, ma’am, we have learnt to shift for ourselves. Lizzie! Come here. Hill, bring brandy, the strongest we have, and compresses. Light more candles. Many more candles. Mr — Bingley, is it not? Sir, you have a dislocated shoulder and every moment makes the resetting of it more awkward. Have command of yourself, sir, for the next moments will be unpleasant.”
Bless them, her two elder daughters had wit enough for all five. They had done this before, too: one of the haymakers who, leaping extravagantly from a wain to impress his girl, had suffered a similar injury.
Lizzie was already moving into position to steady the startled young man. Jane, facing Mr Bingley, gave him a tremulous nod.
“I am sorry for the pain you are in, but it will start to ease as soon as Mama sets it.”
“Stop!” the other man commanded. “This is not woman’s business. Surely the master of the house —-”
Harriet suppressed an obvious retort. Clarence was not deaf, save when he chose to be. His non-appearance must, therefore, be put down to his feeling unequal to company at this late hour. Further, he shrank from the messily physical, with a scholar’s combination of disgust and disdain. Anyone who presumed to think that Clarence, merely by virtue of his sex, was better suited to reduce a dislocated shoulder than the daughter and sister of Royal physicians was a fool, and an arrogant one, too, however magnificent his estate.
“Nursing, sir, is always considered to fall to the feminine sphere in this house. Lizzie, Jane.”
On cue, Jane piped up, “We are sorry you arrive in the country in such unfortunate circumstances, sir. When you are feeling restored, we very much look forward to showing you its beauties. There are some very fine rides hereabouts.”
She favoured him with her most dazzling smile. It almost, Harriet thought, out-dazzled the sapphires in her ears. No man, no normal man, at any rate, no matter how much pain he might be in, was capable of withstanding that broadside. Mr Bingley certainly did not. His forehead smoothed at once. He even essayed a weak smile.
“Indeed, ma’am, I hope — aargh!”
“Back in place, sir,” Harriet said with satisfaction. She stepped back. “Here, sip this, while Hill has your room made up. Ma’am, are you travelling with your tiring woman or can I offer you the assistance of my own girl, to allow you to freshen up after your journey?”
The management of her guests took a great deal of planning. Mr Bingley, thank goodness, could be kept away from it all by having two footmen help him to the Blue Room where his valet could undress him and put him to bed.
That left two unexpected guests to be patched up, fed and entertained. From Lizzie’s undiplomatically raised eyebrows, Harriet gathered her second daughter shared her opinion that Miss Bingley made a great deal more fuss than was warranted over a few scrapes and bruises and that Mr Darcy’s aristocratic nose deserved to have been shaken even further out of joint than the carriage overset had achieved.
Mary declared herself to have the headache and retired early, but Lydia and Kitty, boisterous and over-excited, took advantage of the occasion in full measure. Harriet, in two minds whether to be more irritated by Miss Bingley’s undisguised eye-rolling and knowing smiles at Mr Darcy or by the antics which had provoked them, retreated into aimless chatter: the surest defence against saying something she might later regret.
At length the two guests retired to their rooms. After a minatory glance in her direction, Lizzie shooed her sisters upstairs. Harriet reached for the brandy decanter, in which there was barely an inch of liquor left. Better finish it. It had, after all, been a long and trying day, and it would save the butler work.