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Neap tides. The ebbing of summer. The river awash with frangible reflections. Way out on the estuary, the kittiwakes mewed and the migrant swallow formations diminished to nothing over the horizon. The days fell away like leaves from an oak in the harvest storms.
Soon, it became obvious that Will’s business was failing. He’d no credit, no credibility, left. That was a commodity the Earl could not supply. He spoke of tenanting a farm down in Devon or Cornwall where labour was cheap, or else of going up to Scotland where his uncle had the ear of the Laird of Culzean. Ann wanted to go to Susan in London and lead a gay life. As for Mrs Cole, she quite lost the knack of her contacts in Gloucester, being cumbered with the needs of her grandchildren, and the Widow Medlicott, her particular friend, having remarried an upstanding soul from the Southgate Meeting, a Welshman by the name of Williams and a carrier by trade.
When Lord Berkeley learned of these developments, he sent for Mary and booked a place on the London coach. By Michaelmas, she was installed in a cosy house with bow windows, just off the Brompton Road, where some form of domesticity was sufficiently established for the Earl to invite Captain Prescott to take tea. There had been talk of taking up residence in Park Street, but it was rumoured that the lady who leased the house had grown weary of flitting from one Continental hideout to the next, pursued by couriers with long epistles from her royal paramour. She evinced every sign of packing her trunks and returning to England.
“Time’s wingèd chariot is bringing Maria back to my door! How sweetly she has capitulated, Fred.”
It was November, a month of thickening fog. The Prince of Wales had received the Earl of Berkeley in his silk-panelled bedchamber, attired in a Chinese kimono figured with bamboo. The remains of an epicurean breakfast were spread on the lacquered table by the window. He was as gleeful as a child who had been granted a coveted toy.
“I take it the lady has undergone a Lutheran conversion in her absence.”
“Good Lord, no! Catholics don’t change. It is our beastly laws which must. The moment I am holding the reins, I promise you I shall see this Marriage Act repealed with a stroke of the pen. A piece of mischief devised by my father to keep the whip hand!”
“Then you are no further forward as far as I can see.”
“The separation has confirmed the strength of our ardour. The hurdles must be surmounted. Tell me, Fred,” said the Prince in a pointed digression, “how is your enchanting shepherdess, Miss Tudor? I was vastly taken with her at Hampton Court.”
“Unfortunately, sir, she has suffered one malady after another throughout the summer, but now appears to be mending, I thank you.”
“Another Jacobite white rose. Mary Tudor! What could be more resonant of the Papist faith? And you a confirmed heathen!”
Berkeley grinned in a bashful fashion. The blood rose around his gills. “I believe I mentioned that I am not altogether unacquainted with the cast of your mind.”
“Am I right in supposing you have come to some resolution?”
“The nature of the attachment has changed,” the Earl dissembled. “For the present, circumspection is of the essence.”
“Your secret shall go no further, you may rely. But what a fine example of triumph you are! Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”
“Forgive me, but your situation bears only the palest comparison to mine. Your Highness has the nation’s welfare upon his shoulders.”
“Ha! The Hanoverian yoked to the Catholic! There will be insurrection! There will be disputes over the Succession. The marriage itself will be a criminal act at which no upright cleric can officiate,” catalogued the Prince. “Well, I’ll tell you in the strictest confidence, Fred, since you have honoured me with yours, that I mean to marry Maria. It will be a morganatic marriage, a contract before God, and one, like yours, not to be openly avowed. Society can make of it what it will. Frederick is welcome to the Throne. He has some German Princess in tow which suits the Monarchy down to the ground.”
“If,” suggested Lord Berkeley guardedly, “if you could bring yourself to wait until you are five and twenty, Your Highness might conceivably win the consent of Parliament, even against His Majesty. There would be nothing illegal about that.”
“But, Fred, that is two years away!”
“Virtuous women! They’re a deuced strain on the vitals, it must be said!”
“It would need the downfall of Pitt, for one thing. He’s a pawn of the King. I doubt Fox, my staunchest defender, would support me in this. In fact, I don’t intend he shall know!”
“Then I must wish you the devil’s own luck. There’s no knowing what the outcome will be.”
“Maria is my raison d’être,” pleaded the Prince.
“Have you thought, sir,” said his lordship, affected by unwonted percipience and treading on regal eggshells, “that if there are issue of this union and it is deemed invalid, they will be illegitimate? Even if Parliament should later consent to an authorised ceremony, that will not help them. Only children born the right side of a legal knot would be your heirs. There would be sibling rivalry and odium towards you.”
“All these ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’! What I am doing, I am doing in good faith, Berkeley, as God is my witness. Let that be the alpha and omega of it.”
“Yes, indeed,” agreed his lordship, though he was dubious about the goodwill of the Deity.
When the Earl left Carlton House, he was depressed. Affairs of the heart were lumbered with all manner of responsibility.