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In London, Mary waited in suspense. The only way she was going to redeem herself in her parent’s eyes was to hint at her new-found status and enlist confidence in the overall integrity of her position. Surely her mother would understand how injurious Susan’s ménage was to advancement in good society.
Then, one morning, a letter came bearing his lordship’s frank. Mary was to take the stage to Oxford at dawn on the 29th and to travel from there by post-chaise to Newport in Gloucestershire, spending the night at the Stagecoach Inn. Billy would meet her there at daybreak and together they would walk across the fields to St Mary the Virgin at Berkeley where his lordship would join them.
Mary passed a restless night at the halfway house on the Bristol road, consoled that outside and beyond was God’s own country. The peculiar greenness of those meadows, after a twelvemonth’s absence, filled her with joy. The sheer reprieve from her trapped life in London! Today was her wedding day! At dawn, she threw back the shutters and watched the sheep graze the common and suckle their lambs beneath bands of mist. A pair of hares were spoiling for battle on a thistled knoll. The eastern sky was tinged with willow-herb pink which every shepherd knew promised rain. She would need stout boots and her fustian cloak for tramping across the fields.
She dressed hurriedly and was binding her hair before the looking-glass, when she heard the clopping of hooves in the stable yard and ran to the window. It was Billy riding a roan mare lent him by Peach, the maltster. Scampering downstairs, she rushed out to embrace him.
“Billy! I’ll swear you’re grown a hand or more!” She adjusted his necktie, which irked him a trifle. He was taller than any of them, taller than Pa, and had the wilting stoop of a plant which has outgrown its strength.
“You’re an eyeful,” he grinned. “Lord, my sister the Countess of Berkeley!”
“Hush! Someone might hear. How’s Ma? And Ann?”
“Will’s home. Ann’s a belly as big as a pumpkin and Ma vows it’s twins. Mr Parker’s mighty curious to know what goes forward. Last Friday, Berkeley marched in and desired him to release me for a day. Just think, I’ll be the brother-in-law of an Earl!”
“Come on, Billy, help me over the stile. I’ll race you to the next one!”
Reaching the wooded slopes below the great fortress of Berkeley, Billy stopped, creased with stitch. “Fancy! You’ll be mistress of all that.”
They climbed up through the wood, scuffing a shingle of beech mast, and came out near the grave of Dicky Pearce, the Earl of Suffolk’s fool and the last court jester in England. It was one of the curiosities of Berkeley that the bell-tower of St Mary’s Minster was divorced from the church some distance, its predecessor the relic of an old abbey which had sent out priests to evangelise the heathen during the dark ages. The town had been an important Saxon Borough a millennium ago and had boasted its own mint. On the graveyard path, Lord Berkeley greeted them and hustled them hastily into the porch. He was not easy about oaths made in the house of God and wished the affair to be over and done. Axe marks and bullet holes from a Cromwellian siege riddled the door which could be secured by an ancient draw-bar against enemy attack. The tracery inside resembled a small cathedral, but something pagan lingered in the air; glowering gargoyles kept a vigil over the devotions of the enlightened faithful as though, despite the testimony of generations, they scoffed at any proposition of the Divine.
Arriving at the church on shanks' mare like some village hoyden, it was not to be expected that Mary would feel as a bride should. Her skirts were sodden and her locks untethered. She would have liked Psalms and sacred canticles, the prayers of the devout and the goodwill of her friends. But beggars couldn’t be choosers and her protector had agreed to have the union sanctified.
They were a sparse assembly for what might have been presumed to be a momentous event, just Billy, Mary, Lord Berkeley and a rough-and-ready stranger with ruddy cheekbones and ruminant eyes. He wore an ill-fitting coat and his grubby neckcloth was rasped by an ill-shaven chin. Great heavens, Berkeley thought, some troglodyte from a peat bog! Couldn’t Hupsman have found someone more in keeping? That Reverend gentleman came down the nave with stealthful tread and none of them noticed him until he was upon them. He looked Mary up and down with salacious interest. She took an instant dislike to him.
“The bride and her brother, Huppy,” announced his lordship succinctly. “Pray begin at once.”
They arranged themselves before the Altar, but outside the medieval rood screen surmounted by the great Berkeley crests. The priest opened his prayer-book and rambled through a curtailed version of the service in a tone of dismaying tedium which made a travesty of its meaning. The groom fumbled in his pocket and brought out a ring made of antique rose-gold. Then Hupsman bound his embroidered stole around the hands joined on the Bible and Berkeley visibly twitched and trembled, as though his doom on the gale had been decreed. He assured himself that this elaborate farce could have no real meaning and was entirely under his control.
The Berkeley Family Bible
The next moment, they were pronounced man and wife together and the thing was clinched. They took turns to sign the register, already prepared and laid out on a table, the meek and silent stranger last. He laid a crooked cross upon the parchment, his knobbly, coarse-grained hand struggling to steady the quill.
“Who was that poor man?” Mary asked when Hupsman, taking a hasty leave of them, ushered him away.
“A tradesman who can be trusted to keep his mouth shut,” was Berkeley’s curt reply.
No bells pealed in celebration when they came out of the church into the rain. They hurried across the courtyard, into the Morning Room of the castle, once its chapel, where his lordship demanded champagne with his breakfast and loosed off the cork himself in an impetuous frame of mind.
“Well, here’s to the reckless deed!” he laughed.
“To the pair of you!” Billy seconded.
Mary watched the silvery bubbles rise in a thread and break upon the surface of the wine and tried to feel a lightness of heart to match the occasion. Her husband made no stir to introduce her to his ancestral home which was as foreign to Mary as the tombs of the ancient pharaohs. There was something wild and archaic about the sombre chambers, overlaid by a patina of culture. In the Morning Room long sweeps of tapestry clad the surly stone. These told the stories of Isaac and Rebecca and the destruction of Sodom, dissertations in thread that doubtless went unnoticed by the occupants of the castle. The vaulted ceiling timbers were inscribed with verses from Revelation and Mary was daunted by this immense weight of tradition against which she must pit herself.
“I’ve been thinking,” said the Earl to Billy, “Mary cannot be known as the Countess, nor yet as Miss Cole. She must have a new name. And, therefore, so must you when you are among us.”
In his own mind, Billy decided that this was immaterial now that he had annexed wealth and influence. “Whatever you say, my lord.”
Berkeley was looking upwards for inspiration and alighted on the beams decorated with the cinquefoil Rose of England. “Tudor, yes! Mary Tudor! There is a famous appellation!” It was a surname commonplace in the area, probably the result of some Welsh incursion long ago, and would have an authentic ring of antiquity. (The Widow Cole had Welsh connections.)
“My lord, no!” Mary protested. “Threadbare though my learning is, I know that Mary Tudor was a cruel Queen.”
“There was another lady of that name. She was the by-blow of my eminent great grandfather, the Stuart King, Charles II. Another little Catholic! Her sons were staunch Jacobites and the youngest, Charles Radclyffe, was the last person to be martyred on English soil!”
“I think you are making sport of me, my lord, to furnish such a recommendation!”
“You cannot deny the name has dignity and breeding. It will flatter your new estate very well.”
The Earl was not to be overruled. His chin jutted adamantly and the schemer’s eyes danced to some tune of their own.
“Then I must go as William Tudor,” Billy concluded.
“Yes, but not in Gloucester, I think. It is imperative that you continue as before. Tomorrow you shall go back to mixing potions and keeping accounts.”
“Go back to Mr Parker’s?” Billy was crestfallen after his first heady encounter with champagne. “Surely, Berkeley, you can find me a better post?”
“No, sir, I can’t! And I’ll thank you to know your place. If you don’t do as you’re bid and hold your tongue about this day’s doings, you’ll not see a penny of mine!” He snatched up his riding whip and flexed it against the palm of his hand, glancing about him irascibly and cursing the tardiness of the servants who were preparing breakfast. “Now, we shall all partake of our modest wedding fare, then your sister and I will be leaving for London.”