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They say that the marriage ring is the last link in the chain that in primitive times bound a wife, like a bondservant, to her husband. Mary’s was as slippery as goose-grease. Lord Berkeley plucked it from her finger and, pressing a gold chain into her hand, bade her thread it on that and wear it beneath her bodice. “Next to your soft white bosom,” he gloated, “where I alone shall have the privilege of admiring it.”
By way of a honeymoon, the Earl took Mary to Kew and to Hampton Court, miracles of botanic symmetry after the backwoods of Berkeley. Hampton Court had an expansive maze through which few found their way unpiloted. Berkeley prophesied that they would make old bones in that place and never be found and never be free. Future generations would stumble on their remains and speculate upon their fate and their folly. After half an hour, he hollered for a gardener he’d seen tending the tulip beds to come and give some direction from the dais in the centre. A well-bred voice echoed in reply, but no one appeared. Amazed to find themselves close enough to the perimeter to need only the simplest instruction, they emerged to confront a tall, well-upholstered young man who erupted into a paroxysm of glee. His hair was teased and frizzed. He wore chamois breeches and a dark blue kerseymere coat with gold buttons as big as medals, a lawn kerchief white as the driven snow and a lapel radiant with diamonds, but none of these things was as imposing as his person.
“Fred Berkeley, by all that’s famous! And who is your fair companion?”
The Earl made a low bow. “Your Royal Highness, what a happy surprise! May I present Miss…Miss Tudor to you?”
“I...am greatly honoured to make your Royal Highness’ acquaintance,” Mary stammered, curtsying deeply. Her knee-caps were quaking.
“Miss Tudor, the honour is all mine,” he responded gallantly and drank her in with an appreciative eye and an expression in which sympathy and fascination were commingled. Instantly, she was at ease and felt, despite his rank, that he would always be her friend, a contemporary spirit. “You’re a lucky dog, Fred. Luckier than you deserve,” said the Prince. “But what brings you here?”
“The desire to see something of our culture. Miss Tudor has a fondness for such things.”
“Then, madam, you must be congratulated upon effecting a most salutary change in Berkeley! Have you seen the State Apartments?”
“Oh yes, sir, the housekeeper kindly admitted us. They are splendid.”
“My family seldom visits Hampton Court. The King won’t come within hallooing distance, not since my great grandfather boxed his ears in the Queen’s Drawing room for some mischief when he was a boy. Discerning fellow, George II! But, pray, come down to the river and join our party. We are taking tea al fresco in a covered boat.”
“Good grief, George, you must be disguised, for there’s an Arctic gale blowing!” expostulated Fred.
They stepped aboard the Leda to an uproarious greeting and Berkeley introduced the Countess of Jersey and Georgiana Devonshire, Mr Charles James Fox and Mr Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Colonel Whatley who hailed from Gloucestershire. There was also another woman, an unassuming little creature called Mrs Armistead who was Fox’s mistress. She was elegantly dressed in contrast to Fox who had a number of buttons hanging by a thread and a prayer. Though she did not go in for the adornments of Her Grace and her ladyship, Lizzie Armistead’s subtle wit thrust her into equal focus.
Mary was surprised to find herself easy among this company. As Miss Tudor, a friend of Berkeley’s and a guest of the Prince, they welcomed her without demur. She began to understand that the Earl’s choice of address had been both clever and delicate. The unmarried state was meant to confer a pristine sense of honour whereas, had she been Mrs Tudor, the implication would have been transparent. It was one of the Prince of Wales’ qualities that he took everyone as he found them and did not concern himself with birth and breeding. Wit and character were his benchmarks. His Royal Highness toasted the ‘fugitive angel’ he longed to make his own and gazed wistfully in the direction of Richmond Hill.
Mary was to look back on those few days filled with air and light and blossom buds as through a magnifying glass. For, soon, she was sentenced to a further spell of seclusion in different lodgings in St George Street, Hanover Square. Thus began a nomadic pattern which lasted for some two years with the object of avoiding prattling tongues.
She endured it for a week, two weeks, three. And then a tumult of misery crashed in upon her and a fever raged. She wept with shame at being taken for a mistress instead of a wife. Again and again, she relived the horror of that night of her abduction, felt tainted and consumed with guilt, vainly wanting virginity restored. The Earl did not know what to do. He grew kinder with the passing months; his attentions in the bedroom were sporadic, but full of solicitude. He had no experience of tending ailing females. Moreover, the doctor’s remedies did not appear to be working. One night, he lay awake in the adjoining room, listening to Mary whimpering weakly into her pillow. He went through to her, lit candles and lodged himself upon the bed.
“What’s this, Polly? What’s this? How’s a fellow to sleep? Your eyes have been swollen these three days and your beauty quite spoiled.”
She shuddered out a half-stifled lament. “I’m homesick! Homesick! Homesick!”
“Well, I have been giving the matter some thought.”
“Homesick for what is lost and gone, for what will never be.”
“Ah Polly,” sighed the Earl, “that is the human condition. There’s no help for’t, not that I can see. The notion of limitless choice is a trick done with mirrors.”
He was forty that year and looked older in the dusty glow which muddled shade and tone. The slump of his shoulders bespoke one weighted with cares. In odd moments of contrition, a melancholy mood would surface and drive him to seek escape in the next irresponsible whim.
“Tis like living in a cruel fairytale, being a Countess.”
He took her hand and chafed it encouragingly. “Now you must go down to your friends and relations in Gloucester, breathe some West Country air and recover yourself. Spend the whole summer with them if you desire. In the morning, you can write to your sister and tell her when to expect you.”
“My lord, thank you! You can’t guess how much I have missed them all!” On a wave of gratitude, she put her arms about his neck and kissed him, a blandishment he received with cynical amusement. “You have demanded everything I have to offer, but you have never looked for love.”
“How could I?” he answered tersely, tearing her wrists away. “You are young and beautiful. My tender years were fouled by a knowledge of mankind long ago. I think no one truly loved me in my life!”
“Then I shall hope to learn the trick of it,” Mary said in a small voice.
She was up before breakfast to scribble a letter to Ann on a sheet of Berkeley’s best notepaper. Further consideration prompted her to pen another to Billy, so that he should show no surprise at the length of her stay and remember he was obliged to keep their secret. After weeks of masquerading as Miss Tudor, she dared to sign herself Mary B to her brother. Both letters she addressed to Ann’s house rather than let his lordship’s frank fall under Parker’s eye.
What Mary did not foresee was that her eldest sister, who, when they were younger had asserted some authority over her siblings, would take it upon herself to open Billy’s correspondence.
She was no longer a jailbird’s widow. Will was restored to a modest way of trade around the corner in Westgate. He had taken on Jimmy Roberts again, a Sergeant in the North Gloucestershire Militia, who ran about delivering orders and fetching sheep out of the meadow.
Mary was apprehensive as to how she would be received by her mother. Nowhere was the onus of silence more cumbersome than this. She stood on the doorstep between a ballast of presents and her excitement vanished before Ann’s apathetic stare. Another bout of breeding had caused her to run to fat and had defined the inchoate violence within her. According to the laws of nature, the opposite should have been true, but Ann saw little profit in procreation when her fine gowns must be laid aside and she was tied to the nursery.
Behind her, in the depths of the parlour, darkened by low beams, Mrs Cole walked the tiniest addition, a nameless girl, back and forth against her shoulder, the child blazing up in protest at the intrusion. Henry took fire and peered wrathfully from her skirts, trailing a ‘comfort rag’, while Billy strode in from the kitchen with a handful of bread and cheese and sporting the gun he’d been cleaning which he used for shooting snipe when he went out with Roberts of an evening. Though they didn’t live over the shop nowadays, the miasma of the shambles still lingered about the rooms.
“Well, mayn’t I enter? I’m no apparition.”
“I suppose we must curtsy to my fine lady now?”
“Curtsy? No, of course you must not.”
“You’d best come in.” Ann moved from the doorway and allowed Mary to step down into the rush-matted parlour. Mary glanced expectantly from one to the other and the hope of a welcome drained out of her. The exclamation of delight at her new niece died upon her lips. “Ma? Billy?” It was cold for May and a paltry fire spat peevish sparks into the thick uneasiness. They were tongue-tied, not knowing what to make of the situation.
Her mother spoke at last. “You’ve come a long way, Mary.”
“Aye,” Billy said, craning to see out of the tiny window. “Where’s your grand coach, Sis? When Susan comes, she drives down in a flash phaeton.”
“But I’ve no coach. I travelled by stage to The Bell as arranged. You might have looked for me there,” Mary added uncertainly.
“By yourself?” Ann mocked.
“Indeed by myself. I’m quite used to it now.”
“We may suppose a coach with servants in livery is too fine for the likes of the Coles and the Farrens.”
“But I have no coach,” Mary insisted, dismayed by such antagonism, “no means of transport at all.”
“Don’t gull us with that, Lady B. You’re ashamed of your inferior connections.”
The leaden drop of the wall-clock’s pendulum measured an eloquent silence. Billy had betrayed her! He shrugged helplessly.
“It’s not my fault, Sis. Ann opened your letter.”
“Lest it be urgent,” Ann interposed hastily. “Billy was out with Mr Parker at Chater’s Farm, bleeding the old man of his brass. He usually sleeps at Parker’s.”
“It bain’t a lie, Mary?” begged the Widow Cole. She settled the baby into the cradle and rocked it in time with the pendulum.
“Upon my oath, Ma, I cannot answer you. Depend upon it, I have done nothing wrong. You must have confidence in me as you used to do.”
The refts of tension across her mother’s brow relaxed. “You always was a good girl,” she affirmed in her special voice.
“Too good for this world,” observed Ann tartly.
Mrs Cole made some tea and brought out a drizzle cake. Soon the atmosphere changed and they were Coles together again, their differences forgotten. Billy had put down his gun and joined them but was at odds amongst a parcel of gossiping women and quickly made an excuse to be off. He slept at the apothecary’s house that night and Mary did not see him again until supper the following evening. The weather was cool, but fresh with a hint of lilac. Mary said that if he was going down to the meadows to look at the lambs, she’d go with him. He did not object, so she put on a shoulder cape and walking boots.
“Last time we did this, it was the day of your wedding,” Billy remarked.
There was an awkward pause. “Billy, have you told them?”
“I’d no cause to go telling them, had I, when Ann saw that letter?”
“How foolish of me to be so careless! Oh, you can’t imagine…! Deep down, I longed to reassure Ma.”
“It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking.”
“So they’re not aware of when it took place, or that you were a witness?”
Billy’s complexion turned the colour of naked osiers. “They pestered me and prised it out of me. You know what they’re like.
There’s no mending it now, Sis.”
They stepped across a wooden footboard over a ditch, slippery and rotten with a bright orange fungus sprouting in the rough grain.
Leaning against a stile, they watched the ewes crop buttercups and listened to the litany of bleating lambs. Mary did not know whether to feel gladness, or regret. Billy chewed on a stalk of rye grass and said nothing. He was only a boy who regarded it all as a game.
“That airing’s done you a power of good,” said Mrs Cole to her daughter when they returned. She was taking a pair of tongs to haul boiled muslin out of the copper. “You looked so pale and poorly when you came, I wondered if you was in the family way.” She got a firm negative for her answer. “Praise be!” she muttered, glancing at Mary, her eyes hooded with a burden of wisdom.
“Wouldn’t you be pleased?”
“Well, Mary, youm wearing no ring. What’s a body to think?”
Why, Mary wondered, had her mother sought confirmation of her marriage when she had heard Billy’s account of it?