Serial

The Wolf and The Lamb: (36) Beggaring Belief

 

 

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How the story began...

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The birthing of Maurice was a gentler affair than Fitz’s had been. Fitz had kicked and protested and taken his aboriginal breath with a roar, as if he knew something of the injustice of the world.

On the second day of the New Year, 1788, the waters broke. In the early hours of the next morning Maurice Fitzhardinge Berkeley arrived. Mary gazed in awe at her two hopeful babies, only a year between them, and her heart swelled with pride and a fierce desire to provide for them.

No sooner was her confinement over, than, looking about her, she felt mounting frustration at the badly appointed farmsteads and the ramshackle granaries. It offended her finely wrought notions of thrift and efficiency. Berkeley might have been on a different scale from Barnwood and Butchers' Row, but the rules of economy were the same. Bridling her mare, she rode about the estate and listened to the peasants, got to know their tone of mind. Then she called for the House Steward, James Simmonds, to bring the account books so that she could study them in earnest. There was nothing like parenthood and the threat of beggary to sharpen the wits!

Boniface looked askance when he heard about this and opined that women ought to know their place (which was in the nursery and drawing room). He did not care to entertain thoughts of the bedchamber. What was the Earl thinking of to let a giddy young trollop loose among his ledgers? Even had the pair been bound in wedlock, which he did not believe for a second, it was insane to surrender the reins to a country wench whose courtly bearing and quick brain did not belie a lack of refined education.

 



“The devil of it is,” reported Croome to his sweetheart, Miss Esther Longden, “that we misjudged her. Her talents are to some purpose. She’s no time to go netting purses and writing sonnets and such. She’s a woman of business!”

“Tis a rare thing to find a mistress who’s as much use as ornament,” Esther responded, wide-eyed.

“His lordship don’t seem to care one way or t’other. If he’s not out with the hounds, it’s the gun-dogs, or he’s off to the Barracks in Gloucester, or sitting at the Quarter Sessions, or dining with the gentry hereabouts. Miss Tudor is left to her own devices.”

“With two chavvies an’ all, that must be mortal lonely. But I do think, John, that if they were married, she’d go about with him more. He can’t introduce her to the Quality, can he, if she’s only his fancy piece?”

“I’m as flummoxed by it as you are. All I know is, she has a genuine care for the staff and tenants. Likely she’ll keep mutton on our table. I’ll not hear a word said against her!”

Increasingly, the Earl received good reports of ‘the lady of the castle’. He could look his tenants in the eye and know that their grievances were being addressed. The smooth running of his household was undeniable, with every comfort and pleasure considered. That an inexperienced girl could wreak such a transformation and foster his children so patiently was remarkable. The battlements of Berkeley Castle, jealously hoarding their premium spaces from enemy infiltration, seemed to possess a rosy glow in the meek snowdrop light of February from the hunting fields below. He looked forward to a dinner of roast beef and claret and Mary’s company at table. He thought with regret and longing of the false deed done in Holy Week three years ago. It was something upon which he could never retrench.

There was no doubt about it, he had uncorked a demon genie the day he first tangled with the Coles.





“Our tiff is forgotten. Fox has been recalled from Bologna. The Exchequer will go to Sheridan,” asserted the Prince of Wales to his friend of the South Gloucesters. His Royal Highness was resplendent in robes of chivalry as he sat waiting for news of his Accession. His hunger for acclaim was only superseded by his taste for theatre. The King is dead: Long live the King!

Berkeley found the presumption somewhat distasteful. “His Majesty may yet recover.”

The royal dumpling face fell. His appearance savoured of the young character in Zoffany’s painting of him as a Roman General and his brother as a Sultan, gazed upon by a doting Queen. Rome and Byzantium had better beware!

“You haven’t seen him. Only days ago he was out hunting at Windsor, but he suffered so severe a relapse as to call for Frederick and me to attend him. Do you know - without the slightest provocation, I swear! - he seized me by the throat at dinner and my brother was hard put to tear him away. His nights pass in raving delirium and Sir Lucas Pepys advises that we find our black-bordered stationery!”

“So much for lettuce and lovage!”

“He thinks he’s King Lear. He blames himself for the loss of the Colonies. His decline is now such that he is a danger to himself and others and must, perforce, be strapped in his chair. The First Sovereign of the civilised world and he is come to this! Mama is in fits of distress and I can do nothing right.”

 


“Which leaves the Buff and Blues jockeying for position.”

“Fox is poised and ready to pounce. My energies have been greatly taxed these eight and forty hours with matters of politics. Most sensitive matters. Should I promote Frederick to Field-Marshal, or retain that distinction myself? I am proposing to have medals struck to mark the new era and wonder what inscription they should bear. Then there is the tricky question of Maria: if I create her a Duchess, what should her title be?”

Berkeley could sympathise over forms of address since they had caused such mystification on his own turf. If Maria Fitzherbert was anything like Mary, only one title would answer, and that was not in the Prince’s gift.

Having obtained a grant through Parliament to help soak up his debts and to facilitate expenses as Heir Apparent, he had taken a house for Maria in Pall Mall, in the vicinity of Carlton House, where they evolved a species of married life concocted for the circumstances.

“Your Royal Highness must await inspiration in season. This wretched malady is not drawn to any conclusion yet.”

“Dear Maria is anxious that I seal the rift with the King, lest the chance be lost. But enough! What of you, Fred?”

A slight flicker of unease passed over Berkeley’s face. “Our second son, Maurice, went to the font last March and, in February, there is to be a third child.”

“Good grief! Paternity does seem to be your forte! At any rate, the pedigree is well supplied!”