Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orleans, now lives not far away at Twickenham, subsisting on a small pension granted by Parliament. He learned to live frugally as a schoolteacher in America, so he’s used to economy now. He’s one of Castle Hill’s favourite guests, and as eager to follow the course of Napoleon’s Russian campaign as the zealous Duke of Kent. He’d made a proposition of marriage to Edward’s sister, Princess Elizabeth, a proposition which Queen Charlotte naturally rejected out of hand, to Edward’s dismay. He will eventually marry Princess Amelie Marie of Sicily, although he will always carry a torch for Elizabeth. Some things, often the good ones, are not meant to be. You wonder if there’s a reason for this.
Tea leaves are expensive during this time; Edward gives the ones he’s used to his valet, who uses them twice, before handing them on to a gardner he’s friends with; and this man will then pass them on to someone in the village. You must make sure servants don’t steal your tea. One morning, while breakfasting alone with Louis-Philippe, Edward is just relocking the tea caddy after spooning its contents into a pot himself, when an equerry, flushed and sweating after what must have been a hard gallop from London, excuses his interruption by announcing that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval has just been assassinated by a gunman in the House of Commons’ lobby.
“He’s dead?” says Edward, somewhat unnecessarily, as he soon realizes to his chagrin.
‘Thank you, Captain…ah… dismissed, I suppose…’ He exscuses himself to Louis-Philippe, and rides hard to Carlton House, where he imagines the Prince Regent will be in a panicked palaver, or something similar that his bulk can manage. Soaking wet and spattered with mud, he’s shown into a drawing room, offered coffee, and told that the regent is sick in bed and will see no one. No one. Marvelling that Wales can’t force himself to rise at such a time, he sips coffee alone. Until a door bursts open and a very flustered Duke of York comes stamping in. With his rotund paunch and spindly legs, York now resembles a portly stork.
“What an ill-tempered, bad-mannered, nasty tub of lard that Georgie has become!” York grumbles, searching noisily for a decanter.
“What happened, Fred?” The name seems wrong for York. It belongs to Weatherall now.
“He all but accused me of killing the fucking Prime Minister,” says York, a little calmer after swallowing some Malaga wine. “You’d think the murder was just a conspiracy to exacerbate his alleged illness, that great toad! Drink is his only ailment. I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!”
I find that hard to believe, Edward thinks; but he says, “What of the government? Who’ll take Perceval’s position?” It seems to be a reasonable question under the circumstances; but he’s uneasy around York.
“You don’t want to ask him that. In fact, you don’t want to ask him anything – you don’t want to see him at all. Fuck him.’ A creaking pause, as he looks reproachfully at the wine. Then, like a man bitten bya dog but now bandaged up and more relaxed, he says, ‘I think Lord Liverpool’s going to be PM, though, but I’m not certain.’ This uncertainty seems to irritate him. ‘All he wants to do is quarrel – and he has it in for you, Eddie. Oh yes, he does; he kept cursing you for something or other. What the fuck have you done now?” The words ring around crystal on the drinks plateau.
“But I was told he wouldn’t see me…” The earlier refusal now seems to Edward like a benison, a mercy.
“So was I,” York yowls, “but I went up anyway – and I wish to God I hadn’t. What the hell happened to the sweet brother we used to have, eh? What?” What with his father in Bedlam, he may be no one’s favourite now.
Edward thinks: the brother you used to have, maybe; and he says, “The Regency is not what he imagined it would be – is that it?” A great wave of anxiety suddenly breaks over him, and he clutches at the seat of his chair, now thinking of his father, not Wales. The thousands of days behind him rush naterring into his face, trying to bite it off to see who’s underneath.
“Nothing ever is,” says York, whose own past is now stomping around nearby. “I was bringing him good news too: Wellington defeated the French at Salamanca, retaking Madrid and forcing Boney’s brother, the so-called King Joseph, to flee back to France. You’d think this would have cheered him, but oh no! Everything infuriates that fat fuckface. He’s so dosed up on laudanum all day you can’t be certain he even grasps what you’re saying. Sometimes I wonder if he’s going to be as mad as our poor papa…”
How to respond to this? “Ah. Well. That’d be a disaster, wouldn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” says York, with an odd buoyancy in his discordant tone. “It would make little Charlotte queen, with, one assumes, me as regent…until she reaches her majority. Me!” The word doesn’t sound like a word. It doesn’t even sound human. Me!
Christ, he thinks, never ask if it can get any worse. But Edward too has a giddy sense of displaced euphoria, which makes him say, rather recklessly,“I suppose there’s no point in me asking you for a command, is there?” He sighs inadvertantly at the sheer pointlessness of his question.
“Well,” muses York, in a facsimile of contemplation, “Georgie did mention something about sending you to Malta, but it struck me more as a punishment. I said you’d probably not accept it unless Gibraltar was thrown in too…” He’s watching for Edwards reaction, watching like those creatures that pounce very suddenly.
He thinks this conversation has a babbling tinge of the lunatic asylum about it. “You’re right about that, er, Fred. Malta, of all places — Christ!” He stands abruptly, almost involuntarily, saying as he does, “I don’t know why I waste my time here…” It is a lie, because he knows why, but isn’t sure why he knows it.
“Neither do I these days,” agrees York, pouring himself another quart, and sounding like any other interlocutor. Until he adds, ‘And my time’s far more valuable than yours…’
God, he thinks. It must be bad if York’s being even faintly civil to me. Is this Regency going to destroy the country before Napoleon even gets here?
‘You should stop fucking brooding is what you should do.’ This is York’s advice, and it does sound a little like advice, or it would if anyone had asked him what they should do.
‘Well,’ says Edward, lost for any appeopriate response, and needing fresh air, ‘yes, I should. This has been nice, hasn’t it? Seeing you, I mean. Prime Minister’s shot to death…ah, that’s what I came here for and…’ He prays for help to find a way out of this verbal labyrinth, but this isn’t one. ‘And,’ he goes on, clawing at semantic walls, ‘and havng come, and done, I must – God, is that the time? – yes, I must rush, and… Do give my kind regards to… to… er, to your wife. Yes. How is she? That wife of yours? All right, is she? Because… um, I…’
It is York who terminates this gibbering, saying, ‘Eddie, get Dr. Willis to have a gander at your brain, will you? Now fuck off, for Christ’s sake – you’re giving me indigestion.’
Outside the air is sweet and he gulps it down, thinking you could sell this stuff in bottles. Big bottles they’d have to be. Then he thinks: What did I do to these men in a previous life that I have to spend this one as their dog? Or their bitch? He feels so much better when he’s nowhere near Wales and York. You wonder if there’s a message in this – or you would if there were time for wondering these days.
By now he’s patron or president of 53 charities and philanthropic societies, including the Royal Humane Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Royal Society of Musicians, the London Orphan Asylum, the National Benevolent Society, the Auxiliary Bible Society, the Royal Eye Infirmary, the Friendly Female Society, the Society for Delivering Poor Married Women in their Own Homes, the Covent Garden Theatrical Charitable Fund, the London Corresponding Board of the Incorporated Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge in the Highlands and Islands, the Irish Charitable Society, the Freemasons’ Charity, the Smallpox Hospital, and St. George’s Hospital. He’s also inaugurated a scheme long dear to his heart, his big beating heart. Using the system developed by Joseph Lancaster, whereby older pupils pledge to educate younger ones – each one teach one — he has opened schools for the children of poor soldiers; and then gone on to use the Lancastrian system for educating willing adults as well. Many of these men are inspired to participate after seeing their children succeed in learning to read and write, once the impossible dream itself. The modest success of this elicits a torrent of activity from Edward, who’s prone to such torrents, but hasn’t been lately. When America declared war, but waged a skirmish, he managed to raise ten thousand pounds for the relief of Empire Loyalists caught between the two sides. From now on too, he begins appearing in public regularly to speak on behalf of various causes, including standing in the House to support the movement for Catholic Emancipation, citing, among many reasons, the beneficial effect this will have on the highly unstable Irish Union. He’d read a book on the subject. But no less an authority than the Archbishop of Canterbury personally reproves him for this. It’s inimical to the Church of England, he’s told, and therefore inimical to King George. The archbishop also condemns his patronage of the reformist Bible Society, which is contrary to Anglican doctrine. But the Bible Society’s success in educating the poor drives the Anglican Church to set up similar schools of its own. Shame accomplishes what raw need had failed to do. The pity is that his brothers aren’t shamed into doing something other than what they habitually do – and this monumental shortcoming is pointed out a little too frequently by the press.
‘Lord,’ says Julie, ‘these journalists love you, don’t they?’ And she reads from an article in her morning’s newspaper: ‘The Duke of Kent’s good works are now too numerous to mention; but suffice it to say he has done more in one year than his six brothers have managed to achieve in their entire lives…’
‘Christ!’ he says, watching a red squirrel in the garden ransack red leaves for nuts, ‘That’ll go down well at Carlton House and Horseguards, won’t it?’ He sees it going down, a mountain of ripe shit crushing Piccadilly and Pall Mall, and then sliding inexorably towards Buckingham House. If the Queen’s there, he thinks.
‘Who cares what those loafers think?’
‘Me. I’m forced to care. And, dear God, look at this!’ He shows her a grotesque cartoon of the Regent engaged in an activity for which his vast bulk is pitifully ill-suited. ‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Piccadilly when he sees that…’ I don’t want to be anywhere near London, he thinks.
Julie then tells him, ‘Another piece here says his windows were smashed by a mob shouting support for Caroline…’
‘Ah. That’s always happening. They like Caroline again; and they’ve always pitied Charlotte. Now they blame Wales for the wretched economy too, and the war, and the high cost of everything…’ And the endless misery they call weather, he thinks, his rheumatism reminding him of this.
‘Ridiculous,’ she says. ‘If he ever did anything, I could understand it – but he does nothing…’
‘You don’t make mistakes that way,’ he tells her, thinking he’s better off when Wales does nothing, since he’ll be one of the mistakes his brother is bound to make if he ever gets out of bed.
Travelling the length and breadth of England to inspect the progress of his numerous causes keeps him well away from Carlton House; and he’s now enjoying considerable success in raising further funds from the growing class of industrialists, entrepreneurs and innovators, with some of whom he’s forming friendships, based as much on a vision of Britain’s future as on charitable donations. Such men have championed the need for swift construction of a railway system, along with new canal networks; they firmly believe this will place us far ahead of Europe in trade once the war’s over. And that will be conjoined with economic and military power — once the war’s over. Edward has no doubt that these men are right; yet such advanced thinking is hard to impress upon others — especially those with the capital needed to finance such massively expensive endeavours.
He dispatches Weatherall and Villette up to New Lanark to report on Robert Owen’s progress with his model factory. This gives him a little time to think, something he hasn’t had time for since… since when? Ever? No, he tells himself, wasn’t there a few days in… Was it Boston?
Apart from accounts of Napoleon, all he reads these days are books and articles concerning an imminent future where machines will greatly assist in the means of production, leading to a manifold increase in productivity across the board, not only in the factories, mills and mines, but in agriculture too. He recalls his father mentioning an engine that could bale hay a hundred times faster than a man; such a device exists – and so do many others. This all makes the work of education and labour reform vital, so he believes. If I could only keep this busy always, he tells himself, I’d have no time to worry, would I? For many are now noticing the plight of both workers and the poor, as our cities expand, growing more and more crowded, less and less hospitable. Mr. William Blake, the poet and engraver, speaks of a New Jerusalem to be built here among the ‘dark, satanic mills’. Mr. Wordsworth shows us the abandoned farming villages, the dispossessed wanderers, the children worked to death, the landscapes scarred by industry – the “still, sad music of humanity”, he terms life, or life as it now is for far too many.
Social reform, along with fear of the new society we might regret creating, now seem to dominate all intellectual discussion; and it’s the theme of innumerable novels, poems, and other works, ranging from prolix philosophical tomes to radical tracts, pamphlets and broadsheets. A great change is in the air; you can taste it. Ah. But like all change it’s being resisted fiercely in many quarters. He sees an inherent danger in this wanton misunderstanding. With only constables and soldiers to defend it, the apex of Owen’s pyramid feels a very false sense of security. It would only take the defection of educated armed forces, intent on protecting their own interests, to leave that tiny blue one percent with nothing to support it, nothing to protect it from the raging storm below, when “all that is solid melts into air”, as this state will soon be described in a Communist Manifesto. Inside its egg you can see the coming serpent writhe, practicing the moves it will make when it is ten thousand times larger.
When Weatherall and Villette return from New Lanark, they bring him a gift: an advance copy of Robert Owen’s book of essays, A New View of Society, which will form the basis of Edward’s deeper thinking on this subject, which he comes to regard as the only one worth anyone’s time in this day and age. They also bring a glowing report of Owen’s experimental mill town, which is now fully functional.
‘Working conditions in the mill are exemplary,’ says Villette, energised by his time there – an energy he sorely needs these days. ‘The town and its workers’ cottages are a pleasure to behold: light, airy, charming communal areas, and a company store selling all their daily needs at a mere 20% profit to cover costs…’ He even claps his spotted hands in glee.
‘Ah,’ Edward says. ‘A far cry from the company stores I’ve seen. Workers were gouged of their wages in those places, and all because there wasn’t anywhere else for miles around to buy their essentials…’ Wrong, wrong, wrong, he thinks.
‘Owen’s schools are excellent too,’ says Weatherall, more sober than Villette, but still enthused at modernity. ‘Both the workers and their children attend lessons willingly; they seem to enjoy it. And most of the kids can already read and write – it’s extraordinary.’ He does think this, but he also mourns the slow passing of a world he was used to. We all get to be like that, eventually we do.
‘Truly,’ says Villette, furrows carved into his brows. ‘Rowdy behaviour and drunkenness during free time are all but unknown there. The men prefer to spend it in sports, or on embellishments to their homes – it’s remarkable how much they appreciate the nice little places he’s given them…’ Villette is beginning to wish he too had a nice little place, a refuge from the hurly-burly that now wearies him. It didn’t use to, but now it does.
“Yes,’ Weatherall agrees. ‘They seem genuinely aware how fortunate they all are in such a benevolent employer… Many even described the place to us as ‘paradise’ – for them it really is, I suppose…”
“It’s true,” Villette chimes in, the energy flagging. “We heard some accounts of other places people had worked – appalling! You can see how much they respect what they’ve got now. The little town’s spotless, everything neat and tidy, doors freshly painted, flower beds blooming…’ He thinks he’ll weep if he says any more.
‘Owen told us that in spite his ten-hour work day productivity now exceeds that of mills where there’s a sixteen-hour day. He plans to reduce the time further as well — to eight hours!”
“The man’s theories are right,” Edward says jubilantly, his ears ringing. “Workers treated with respect return that respect through their work — especially when they can share in its profits.’ A pause, as he imagines the drum roll, saying, ‘This, gentlemen, is the future, and we should be proud to be a part of it…” He tries to shut out the voice about to ask him what comes before a fall.
He now becomes a fervent promoter of Robert Owen’s experiment, urging all the mill-owners he knows to visit New Lanark and judge for themselves if it’s a success.
‘I hardly see you these days,’ says Julie, as tea is being served in the music room. ‘Uh-uh: don’t respond, my love. I can see you’re happy doing this – and that’s what counts. Mr. Owen must be very impressed…’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘not much impresses him. Whatever’s done, he can always see more to do…’
‘It strikes me, Edward, that the transformation of a society where little has ever changed in all of history is no small undertaking, is it?’
‘Ah. Small? No, it’s not…But why should we live in a house like this when all those people are living in boxes?’
‘Well,’ she says. ‘Because it’s better?’
You’re almost certain he’ll say “Ah”, but he doesn’t. He has an answer to his own question, but it’s not something you readily say to just anyone – anyone, trhat is, who doesn’t subscribe to a reasonable working hypothesis for explaining the quirks and quiddities of mortal existence.
A silence seems to have descended over Europe, a silence so complete and utter you can almost hear its thick rotundity.
The conclusion of Napoleon’s Russian adventure gradually leaks in from various sources. Having waited in Moscow for a month longer than he could afford, and eventually conceding that Czar Alexander is not going to sue for peace, or indeed respond at all to his entreaties, the emperor realizes he must now make a retreat to France, where he’ll have to admit the invasion has failed. He does tentatively suggest an advance to Petersberg, to bolster up his reputation, but he knows it’s impossible, even if “impossible” is not a word in his vocabulary, not a word he’s ever understood. Until now, when it’s branded on his brain.
As November comes to Russia, so does the real winter, with bitter cold and an army still clad for summer. It’s not just soldiers, this army, as we’ve said; it’s wives, mistresses, lovers, children, shoesmiths, gunsmiths, tailors, and all the people who follow armies for many reasons – or even for no reason. Food has run out entirely; and water is only obtainable if you can set fire to the frozen branches and melt snow, which when consumed causes hideous intestinal problems. Men drink their own blood; others cut off frostbitten fingers and eat them. Straw is now being used for bandages, and infections are common. Returning through Borodino, they encounter a soldier who’s been hiding inside the carcass of a horse for weeks, living off putrifying flesh he cuts from the animal’s innards and eats raw. Many die or succumb to wounds on the way, the ailing thrown in the back of carts, but pushed off when the going gets harder and their weight is an unwanted burden. Without appropriate shoes, the starving horses slip on ice and break their delicate fetlocks, becoming food now, rather than transport – as we know, everything becomes food in the end. Some men devour their dead comrades; some even carve up the dying for supper. Russian forces pursue them, the armies of Bennigsen, Wittgenstein and Barclay successfully attacking the French rearguard, or sometimes even Napoleon’s own flanks. Cossacks fly out from the frost-glazed bush with deadly results; on one occasion the emperor narrowly avoids being captured by them – only the Polish chasseur uniform he habitually wears spares him from being identified. Wagons full of looted treasures are left by the wayside, as men realize survival is more important than booty. These people have now slept in the open for many weeks, in temperatures far below any they’ve ever experienced, below any they imagined possible. Noses, ears, toes, fingers and other appendages are gangrenous from frostbite, or they’re gone altogether, bone stubs sticking through black flesh. Obliged to construct a bridge across one river, engineers spend long hours up to their necks in freezing water; and then still more long hours when their bridge gives way. Nearly all are dead before the army has crossed over. And an army it is no more, less still a Grand Army. Of the many hundreds of thousands, only a few thousand remain around Napoleon, along with corps commanded by his stepson, Eugene, Murat’s dragoons and Marshal Ney’s regiment.
The emperor seems indifferent to all this suffering, often walking in the deep snow with his men rather than ride in his carriage; but, as December progresses and there’s nothing any longer to gain by this long and wearying trek homeward, he wisely decides to head off in his coach, and then a fast sleigh, with General de Coulancourt and a few men, travelling via Poland for Paris, where a coup attempt by General Malet has just been defeated. In his report on the disastrous campaign, Napoleon is unusually frank, yet he keeps emphasising his own good health, which has ‘never been better’. The reason for this, Vincy’s informant claims, is that Malet, leader of the failed coup, who’d recently escaped from a lunatic asylum, had forged a document announcing the emperor’s death in Russia; and with this counterfeit paper he’d managed to persuade a large number of people to follow him and form a new government, placing Louis XVIII on the throne of France. Learning this, Napoleon was enraged that, if he was believed to be dead, no one had proclaimed his two-year-old son as Napoleon II. The child is currently King of Italy. The vaunted dynasty is finally in place, after all. For the first time, though, the emperor understands how shaky his foundations really are. Thus, says Vincy’s letter, he now urgently needs to broadcast his own strength and fitness to rule far into the future. But he’s deeply in trouble, with his Grand Army decimated, and a war on two fronts still to fight.
Wellington is advancing from Spain across the Pyrenees, and a Russo-Prussian alliance has soon been joined by Napoleon’s own father-in-law, King Francis of Austria, once the Holy Roman Emperor. How the mighty have fallen – and, Napoleon must now see, will always fall as their star wanes. Czar Alexander has finally taken over command of his army, determind to finish in 1813 what was only started in 1812. This war is very far from over yet. The secret strategy has not yet achieved its goal; and three sizeable armies are now advancing on France from the north. This has forced Napoleon to do something he’s never done before: seek an armistice, allowing him time to rebuild his lost army – or resurrect it from the swamps and clay of fields and meadows scattered in a two-thousand-mile radius across Europe’s heart. The armistice is agreed to partly because the heroic Prussian General von Blucher also wants to strengthen and reorganize his own forces. Vincy concludes by observing that Napoleon has now presumably discovered inter-dynastic marriages are not the guarantee of security he’d clearly once imagined them to be.
Edward experiences a curious sense of satisfaction, knowing, as he in fact does, so much more about the war than almost anyone else. Little of this information will appear in newspapers for weeks to come. And it’s followed by a letter from Rose, who complains she’s herself been accused of fomenting a plot out at Malmaison, a plot to bring back Bourbon monarchy. While it’s true, she says, that many of her guests and friends were high-ranking figures in the old regime, there’s never even been a hint of conspiracy in dinner banter. The accusations only cease when Napoleon returns, and she’s seen to welcome him, and must thus still be in favour. She ends her note by relating that the emperor has told her, considering the lack of familial support for his son and from his father-in-law, that he might as well have stayed married to her, to his old Josephine, to our dear Rose. This is evidently more important to her than the looming catastrophe now faced by Napoleon, and indeed by all of France.
Edward is left wondering why the emperor embarked on such a colossal blunder. There was no need to invade Russia. Apart from Spain, Europe had been relatively at peace for three years; although the French economy was not thriving, the empire was stable; Talleyrand had told his master England was amenable to a treaty – so why risk everything? Edward concludes that it is Napoleon’s restless spirit which drives him always to gamble, to risk, with a view to achieve more. And then still more. Romany Rosalea’s horoscope contained it all, like the serpent’s egg, fully-formed long before hatching out. It will not cease until Napoleon has either conquered the whole world, or else been conquered himself. And, Edward thinks, I could do that. He thinks it often during these uncertain months. But, as he soon decides, the emperor’s Achilles heel must be the flagging economy. All empires are expensive to run, especially when you have no cause to loot parts of them. The French currency is inflating like that damn crazy balloon of theirs, and there’s no work; banditry is rife in the provinces, where the poor cannot afford food. Would this be reason enough to embark on such a disastrous campaign? No reason seems sufficient for a war, though. Except the lust for glory. He knows himself what an irresistible temptation that is. Men have lied, murdered, treasoned and even bargained with Beelzebub for it – are perhaps even doing so now, but certainly will do so again soon ad forever. When wining is your only goal, what are you willing to sacrifice on the altar of someone or something who promises he can deliver your wish? Most aren’t faced with the starkly Manichaen option. But some are; and it may be you, who sweep the issue aside, refusing the offer of an honesty without strings – brcause, he tells himself, you already know what you would do, yet cannot shoulder the burden of confessing your need to hang onto means justifying ends. Is this, wonders the Duke of Kent, Stoicism stripped of Marcus and Xeno, whittled down to a repulsive creed espousing self-interest and dispassion as its god?