Certain characters thrive on breeding conflict wherever they turn...
The Regent had no appetite for the business of Government.
Cumberland, a hardened Tory, where his eldest brother had long been affiliated to the Whigs, was a dark eminence in matters of politics. Neither had he lost his genius for interfering in personal affairs. The Regent dithered, saw things this way, then that, promised freedom for Catholics and was afterwards persuaded that it would break the Constitution. McMahon watched as documents crossed the royal desk back and forth between HRH and Cabinet members before he was braced to scribble his signature, flushed with anxiety and a pounding head. “Playing at King is no sinecure,” he complained on one occasion.
All this was more than a little frustrating for his ministers of either colour. The fallout from strife with the French was twenty years old and was biting hard. Pockets of unrest were bubbling throughout the land over poverty and lost livelihoods. A strident cry could be heard for trade embargoes with France to be lifted. When the First Minister met with a tragedy, it all came to a head.
One afternoon in May, Mr Perceval kissed his wife, Jane, goodbye and told her not to delay dinner, he expected to be late. The weather was sunny, the air fanned by mild breezes, and he decided to walk from Downing Street to the Palace of Westminster for a crucial debate. He was not a tall or portly man and his feet almost danced along the corridor to the lobby of the House of Commons which he entered in a confident mood to be greeted by one or two of those gathered. The room was alive with babbling conversation so that no one was aware of the figure who emerged from the shadows and, smartly parting the throng, pulled a pistol from his inner pocket and fatally shot the Chief in the chest. A shocked and fearful silence ensued, followed by an outburst of horror which saw the perpetrator seized, locked up, and hanged within a week. No one had heard of John Bellingham, or knew his true motive, but, as a Liverpool merchant, it was felt by the angry repealers that he was representative of the need for a policy turnaround.
The Regent was distraught. He was magnificently in debt, unpopular, suffering from gout and a broken ankle, and was expected to steer the ship of Government through the heaving seas of conflict. His brother, Cumberland, opined that his poultice had been applied at the wrong end. It was needed upon the head!
“I find myself too often melancholy about this great nation of ours,” Lord Erskine told his close friend, James Perry. They were dining alone at the journalist’s Wimbledon home adorned with scenes of pastoral reverie by Watteau. “The Regent is a fickle figurehead.”
“I am inclined to think,” said Perry, “that he has a phrenic malady we cannot put a name to.”
Erskine broke his bread. “Hmm. He certainly acts like a man who cannot help himself. Erratic and indecisive to a fault.”
“If the Whigs who’ve been so long in the wilderness will not form under Grenville, what hope is there? HRH has no recourse but to cast about for a leader to keep the Tories in office.”
“That would please the Queen and Cumberland in one!”
“The devil incarnate, not to mince matters! Wherever he treads, things go agley. I’d not be surprised if he hadnae contrived this impasse.”
Lamplight shone through the tart redcurrant jelly accompanying a tender venison steak. It was a cool evening and the fire flickered in the copper and brass about the hearth, burnished by diligent servants. Erskine pondered the wisdom of what he was about to say and resolved that cautions would not go amiss. “And how is Mrs Perry these days? Bearing up courageously, I trust.”
Anne Perry, a consumptive, had taken supper with their children and retired early for the night. “Though she has much to grumble about, she has the grace to grumble little. But for these troubled times, I would send her to warmer climes. The noxious city humours from smoke and marsh are a daily trial.”
“I’m sure. It’s not quite as Wordsworth painted it, is it? It must be a source of constant anxiety for all of you.”
“Sometimes, I fear I am not a fit husband when I’m worn out with politics and earning bread.”
“As all editors know, it is enough to keep one’s enemies in check and retain our principles.” Erskine lay down his cutlery and sat back in his chair, his dark button eyes troubled. “I fear you have a savage enemy in Cumberland, Perry.”
“Well, he is no partisan of the Whigs!”
“I was thinking in more personal terms.”
“Your...forgive me...I speak as a loyal comrade...your affinity with Lady Berkeley…”
Perry looked startled and defensive at once, searching his mind for instances of solecism. “The Countess? Why so?”
“Apparently, he surprised you in intimate converse with her at Carlton House. He recalls a similar occasion years ago.”
“For pity’s sake, Erskine, there wasnae an atom of impropriety. Is that what he’s suggesting? Her ladyship is the most irreproachable being on earth.”
“But a widow, is she not?”
“That has nothing to say! We are old family friends. What is this?”
“My friend, I would vouch for your honesty anywhere…but I must warn you the contemptible fellow seems to think you assisted her ladyship’s Address to the Peers. He claims it is a vulgar and specious piece of defiance when the matter of pedigree is now in effect put to bed. Can the unfortunate woman have written it herself?”
“I believe so. She is not uneducated and has a keen mind.” The editor took a swift draft of his wine. “As to the legalities entailed, she may have taken advice,” he conceded sheepishly. “How came you by all this?”
“It was an exchange overheard when I dined at Creevey’s last week. You will not press me, I know, to say between whom.”
“Meddlers! What can it signify?”
“Your support of the fair lady will be mischievously portrayed when she has no husband and Mrs Perry ails severely. Cumberland intends to go to Byrne with it.”
“The Morning Post! I thought that rag had given up idle tattle and was now a respectable organ of the Tories. Good grief! Has the poor woman not been through enough?”
An awkward silence ensued. Erskine noted the glint in his companion’s eye which was even more telling than his tone. Perry wanted to say that, of course, he meant Anne, whose intelligent countenance and good nature was sustained through harrowing sickness. He’d been proud to introduce her to the haunts of revolutionary philosophers and thinkers when he went to Paris in the early years of the war to report on events there. Young and vulnerable women enlisted his chivalry. Anne’s delicate constitution had been as tender a hook as Mary Cole’s plight as a girl, forsaken by her sister and alone in the city. Now he strove to repair the breach as best he could. “Anne has borne me eight bairns and struggles pitifully. She will get wit of the havering sooner or later.”
“Aye, that. Cumberland is vindictive enough not to care.”
“It breaks my heart when she has given me unstinting support and has been a fine hostess all these years. And what of Lady Berkeley?”
“Besieged from every quarter, I imagine, or else treated as a pariah, as is the misfortune of widows.”
“But she must bear what no widow should. The House grilled her mercilessly, in an insulting manner.”
“She had the temerity to insist on her claim with only the frailest evidence.”
“We both know her own counsel’s view of the case.”
“Serjeant Best? Well, his history isnae spotless. He was taken to court for assaulting a woman some years ago. I fancy he’s a grudge against womenfolk.”
Erskine raided his memory. “Ah, yes, the case of Rebecca Minifee who regaled the court with salacious detail. Her husband swore he’d have the gown off Best’s back.”
“Garrow got him off. They don’t come sharper or more eloquent than that fellow. The crowd was rapturous. They’d rather sentences were harsh than find their judiciary corrupt.”
“There’s something in that, Perry,” agreed Erskine. “I note that Best has lately turned coat.”
“I’d wager it’s Cumberland who’s made a Tory of him!” said Perry. “He’s Prinny’s puppet-master.”
“To be frank, I can’t help speculating on the Regent’s motive for intervention in the Berkeley case. He’s top-heavy with trouble as it is.”
“They were old cronies, he and Berkeley,” Perry said dully. “HRH was party to the secret marriage from the beginning, I believe, and wanted to do right by his conscience.”
“Was he a witness?” Erskine demanded.
“Absurd as it is, I’ve heard it said he could have been. The law is not equipped to administer moral justice in every instance.”
Erskine raised his conical brows. “Morality is often subject to interpretation, is it not?”
“Come, you are a fellow of broad humanity with your defence of Thomas Paine and the Princess Caroline, let alone your championship of Animal Rights and definition of Lunacy.”
“Aye, Perry, there have been times when we’ve both paid a price for our convictions. I don’t mind saying, if the Whigs came to power, I’d be looking for office again. As to the Countess, let us pray that she may find peace.”
“If the gossip be any measure, I think it a pipe dream!”
from The Peeress and The Playboy, Third Book in the Berkeley Series (to be published 2024)