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Authors: Fay Weldon

Long Live the King

BOOK: Long Live the King
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December – 1901

Adela Annoys Her Father

‘Will we be going to the Coronation, Father?’ asked Adela, in all innocence.

She should not have. He was now in a bad mood. Adela was hungry. She waited for her father to start his breakfast: no one could begin before he did. The last food she’d had was at six the previous evening. Supper had been a bowl of chicken soup (its fourth appearance at the table) and some bread and cheese, from which Ivy the maid had been obliged to scrape away so much mould there was precious little cheese left. The Rectory at Yatbury was an abstemious household, dedicated more to the pleasures of the spirit than the flesh.

‘We certainly will not,’ her father said. ‘I daresay your uncle and his brood will prance around in ermine robes with sealskin spots, but I will not be there to witness it, nor will any member of my household.’ He spoke of his elder brother Robert, the eighth Earl of Dilberne, whom he hated.

‘But Father—’ said Adela. Better if she had kept quiet. Her mother Elise, a princess of the Gotha-Zwiebrücken-Saxon line, known locally as the Hon. Rev.’s wife, kicked Adela under the table with the heel of a boot, scuffed and worn, but still capable of delivering a painful blow to the shins.

‘And I’ll have no further mention of this absurd business, Adela, until the whole event is over. The country is still at war and income tax has risen to one shilling in the pound and likely to go up tuppence more. And why? To pay not for the war but for a party. A pointless party for a monarch who is already accepted in law and by the people, in a vulgar display of purloined wealth,’ said Edwin. He was the Rector of the small parish of Yatbury, just south-east of the City of Bath in Somerset, and in speaking thus he spoke for many. ‘That wealth has been stolen for the most part by piracy; gold, diamonds and minerals wrenched from the native soil of unhappy peoples by virtue of secret treaties, then enforced by arms, intimidation and usurpation.’

The worst of it was that, though he had said grace and been about to crack open his boiled egg, Adela had spoken a moment too soon. Her father laid down his teaspoon the better to pursue his theme. All must now do likewise, since the habit of the house was that its head must be the first to eat.

‘I am surprised no one has paraded the heads of Boers on poles outside the House of Lords,’ said the Honourable Reverend Edwin, by way of a joke. ‘My bloodthirsty brother would love that.’ His audience of two laughed politely. But still he did not eat.

Edwin regarded his elder brother Robert, Earl of Dilberne, recently risen to Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, as a man entirely without scruple. Was he not known as a gambling companion to the King, the lecher; and as a friend to Arthur ‘Bob’s your Uncle’ Balfour, nepotist, necromancer and Leader of the House? All politicians were damned and Dilberne was the worst of all politicians, a full-blooded Tory, more concerned with the welfare of his war horses than relieving the miseries of the troops. As near as dammit a Papist, who had permitted his only son to marry a Roman Catholic girl from Chicago, who would no doubt breed like a rabbit and remove Edwin still further from any hope of inheritance. A man married to a wife better fitted to be a pillar of salt out of Sodom and Gomorrah than the social butterfly she was, Isobel, Countess of Dilberne.

‘But—’ said Adela.

‘I have heard too many buts from you, girl,’ said Edwin. ‘Don’t interrupt me.’

‘Yes, Father,’ said Adela.

She was a pretty if underfed girl of sixteen, with large blue eyes in a pale angelic face, and when her hair was not in tight plaits, as her mother insisted upon, it rippled in thick, clumpy, blonde-red Botticelli waves to her waist. She was doing her best not to answer her father back, but it was difficult, though no doubt good practice for her future life of humility, devotion and obedience. The convent of the Little Sisters of Bethany, where her parents had entered her as a novitiate, she comforted herself, at least kept a good table. On the 21
st
of May, her seventeenth birthday, she would be off. She couldn’t wait.

Adela willed her father to pick up his spoon, and his hand trembled and she thought he would, but he had another thought and put it down again. Adela took a breath of despair and hunger mixed and a button burst off her bodice. Fortunately no one noticed, and she was able to push the button under the edge of her plate. She would ask Ivy to sew it on later. It was a horrid dress anyway, dark brown and no trimmings and too tight around her chest.

Actually Elise had noticed, but said nothing, so as not to draw Edwin’s attention to his daughter’s bosom. Time passed but brought its embarrassments with it. Ivy the maid suggested from time to time that new dresses should be bought, now that all possible seams had been let out, but new clothes were an extravagance when half the world was in rags. It was Elise’s conviction that if Adela ate less she would grow less.

Once it had been a love match – a chance meeting on a cross-Channel steamer in a storm between an Austrian princess and the fourth son of an Earl – but both dedicated to the service of God. The flesh had won over the spirit, the Anglican over the Catholic; they had married impetuously and neither had ever quite forgiven themselves or each other. The proof of their spiritual weakness was the sixteen-year-old Adela. And now she was growing fast, for all her mother could stop it, and worse, turning into a veritable vehicle of concupiscence. It was all her husband, all that any man, could do, and he was the most saintly of men, to keep his eyes away from her changing body. The sooner the girl could be packed off to the Sisters of Bethany the better.

‘Better stay home and pray for the salvation of our new monarch’s soul,’ said the Rector, finding breath, ‘than be part of the vulgar display of ostentation and wealth. A double coronation! There is no need for it: she is the man’s wife, but he must have her crowned too, Queen Consort – a royal gift much like the bunch of flowers any errant husband brings home to his wife when his conscience is assaulted by his misdeeds.’ In January Bertie, Prince of Wales, had ascended to the throne on the death of his mother Queen Victoria. Her reign had lasted sixty-three years: the shock to the country was great, the more so since it now had Bertie, seen by some as a voluptuary, a drunkard and a gambler, by others as a genial if hot-headed fellow, as Edward VII. The new Queen, Alexandra, for forty-three years Princess of Wales, was seen as an angel of docile and loving disposition, though shocked some few by including her husband’s mistresses amongst her friends. ‘The whited sepulchre which is the Queen Consort’s bosom,’ Edwin declared with some passion, ‘will indubitably glitter with diamonds; but they will be stained by sin and depravity. The King has no shame – he will even flaunt his mistresses in our sacred Abbey, I am told, the whole gallery of them seated together as in any common whorehouse.’

He cracked open his egg but then paused, and failed to remove the shell. Adela had cracked hers likewise but was now obliged to stay the spoon in her hand.

Elise changed the subject and said she hoped Edwin would say as much from the pulpit on Sunday: if he said nothing the Coronation would serve as an excuse for idleness and drunkenness for months to come.

Edwin replied that on Sunday he would have no pulpit, there would be no sermon. That even as he spoke the Church furnishers were at work in St Aidan’s refurbishing the interior. In future he would speak not from a mediaeval stone structure but from a plain white table with a white cloth and simple cross: there would be no more incense; there would be no candles, no more mystic Catholic mumbo jumbo. When the pulpit was gone, the furnishers would turn their attention to St Cecilia’s gallery, that wormy relic of a false religion, and be rid of it for ever. He glanced briefly at Adela as he spoke, as if in expectation of her protest, and then began to eat his egg, which by now was cold.

‘But Father,’ said Adela, without thinking, even forgetting that she was hungry, ‘please no! The musicians’ gallery is so very old and pretty it seems a pity to pull it down. I am sure God won’t mind if it stays. Please let it be.’

The Hon. Rev. Edwin Hedleigh slammed the Bible so hard upon the breakfast table that the crockery jumped, and spots of lightly cooked cold egg ended up on the tablecloth, and worse, on the dark red velvety cover of the Bible itself. The Mrs Hon. Rev., dutiful and obedient as ever, leapt from her chair and dabbed ineffectually at the spots with a napkin. Her husband’s rages left her shaken and incompetent.

‘Old and pretty is hardly the point. I have had enough of your yes buts, Adela. Have you no respect? That confounded gallery is no more than a haunt for all the drunks, rogues and vagabonds of the parish. They shelter there overnight, the better to pursue their filthy habits.’

‘Couldn’t we just lock the church at night to keep them out?’ Adela asked. Her voice quavered, and she despised herself for it, but she persisted. She thought perhaps hunger made her brave. She had no idea what a filthy habit was – no one told her anything – but she had no doubt it was reprehensible. She had so hoped the church furnishers would spare the musicians’ gallery. Her father must have written especially to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, asking for a faculty for its removal, and the Bishop had given it. The older things were, Adela reflected, the more unpopular they seemed to be. The gallery, with its delicately carved traceries and oak panel, pale with age, of a dancing St Cecilia the Virgin amongst her musicians – viol, lyre and tambourine – must date back at least five hundred years.

‘Let the idolators win? Lock up the house of God? Deny the faithful their solace? For the sake of some wormy oak carving and the relics of a false religion? Are you stupid as well as plain, Adela?’ And the Hon. Rev. seized up the Bible and went to his study leaving his breakfast uneaten. He was even taller than his brother Robert, Earl of Dilberne, and as fiery tempered as his brother was genial.

‘Now see what you’ve done,’ Elise said to her daughter, more in the hope of appeasing her husband than reproaching the girl, and followed him through to the study.

As for Adela, she ate her egg and toast before anything worse happened, finished her father’s, tackled the next two eggs – he always had three eggs and her mother two to her one – swept all available crumbs into a napkin and went out of the Rectory into the frosty morning to feed the robin, who sat waiting on his usual perch on the lowest limb of the oak tree. She was practising thankfulness, and managed to thank Jesus for giving her the parents he had chosen for her, though this morning it took some effort. ‘Plain’ and ‘stupid’ had made their mark.

A Letter to the Countess from the Duchess

Tom Fletcher the postman liked his new round very much. It amounted to promotion, though they paid you no more. Here in Belgravia the streets were wide, the houses large and grand, their numbers could be easily read and the letterboxes were under porticos, out of the rain and wind. Far better working here than in the City, where streets had been narrow and twisted, houses and offices crammed together on top of each other, separated by complex networks of alleyways, where horses knocked you off your bike, or splattered the ground in front of your tyres with steaming soft manure, and such numbering as there was, wholly irrational. Also, the letters that came in Belgravia were more interesting than the ones that passed between office and office. One could scarcely begrudge their delivery.

The gold wax seal on this particular envelope was stamped with two crescent moons and a sun, and had been recognized by the sub-postmistress at Mount Pleasant sorting office as coming from the desk of Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough. Consuelo was Mistress of the Queen’s Robes, although she was only twenty-four. She had provided her young husband with the two children he required and now had time to spare, and good looks and style aplenty.

The letter was addressed to Isobel, Countess of Dilberne, 17 Belgrave Square, who also moved in the highest of circles, and was something of a fashion icon: perhaps it contained news of what the Queen Consort would wear on her coronation in the New Year? What the dress would look like, the jewels, the possible new crown, were already a source of speculation, even before a definite date was fixed. The women of the nation wondered and chafed at the delay; the men were less concerned. Enough that there was to be a day’s holiday and free drinks all round when it happened.

Be that as it may, Vera at the sorting office had tapped her nose when she’d handed over the two crescent moons and the sun and said, ‘Keep your ears open, eh, Fletcher, when you call by number seventeen?’

‘Don’t I always,’ Fletcher said, and delivered the letter to the servants’ entrance in the basement, instead of the front door, and had a cup of tea with Mrs Welsh the cook while he was at it, and Lily the lady’s maid, who looked down her nose at him but whom he rather fancied.

BOOK: Long Live the King
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