Napoleon united us and our allies against him; the Congress of Vienna is reducing us all to bickering Lilliputians, squabbling over every yard of territory, every end of an egg. But England visibly trembles with excitement at the thought of hosting the cream of Europe, the royalty, the aristocracy, the military and political titans. For the Regent, though, this tide of cream is rather sour, involving, as it does, herculean labours of ostentation, logistics, pomp, and pageantry – all of it on a scale never before contemplated, indeed never seen, at least not here, or not since Elizabeth Tudor. It is the prelude to our ascendency as leader of the world, our destiny, our true role and the will of our God. But it doesn’t look like this to those little people who make our megalopolis what it is and what what it will become.
Late the following day, May 12th, Weatherall meets Edward for tea at White’s.
“Well,’ he says, ‘the new Bourbon didn’t get himself off to a very good start, did he?”
“Ah. What happened? I haven’t heard a thing since he disappeared over the Narrow Sea.”
Parisians, so it seems, weren’t that happy on May 4th at the sight of their gouty, overstuffed new monarch crammed into his dingy old carriage. The peasants
particularly viewed the Bourbons as lackies of the Allies; they were fearful for their lands too, with all the returning nobility eager to reclaim property. And Louis had been intensely annoyed to find that French public opinion generally considered Russia had won the war. He was still more annoyed to find that the czar, still basking in the lustre of his role as saviour, evidently thought so too. Yet there was soon something to annoy Alexander as well.
Louis’ farewell declaration to the Prince Regent, recently published in many London papers, has now reached Paris, and in it the King of France stated: It is to the counsels of Your Royal Highness, to this glorious country, and the steadfastness of its inhabitants, that I attribute the reestablishment of my House on the throne of its ancestors… It went on so effusively that a reader utterly ignorant of events over the past few years would assume that Wales had himself single-handedly crushed Napoleon and liberated Europe.
“That’s going to make George’s task even more difficult than he already expects it to be,” Edward remarks, thinking that Louis had kept his promise a little too extravagantly.
“I see the King of Prussia can’t be bothered to attend,” Weatherall continues.
“Too shy? Or most probably too embarrassed? He wasn’t exactly overwhelming early in the war, was he? Lucky he had any armies left. He’ll probably send Blucher to represent Prussia – at least he can claim some victories. I’m told his men nicknamed him ‘Marshal Forwards’, on account of his extremely aggressive attitude in a battle…” Edward is glad to be back on ground he understands far better than Planet Wales.
‘What about King Francis?’ Weatherall asks of the Austrian monarch. ‘You think the shame of marrying his daughter to Napoleon might keep him away too?’
‘I doubt it; he must be keen to show he’s firmly with the Coalition now his son-in-law is banished. Pity memories can’t be so easily removed. Anyway, Metternich will certainly be representing Austria, and he’s far more interesting: believes negotiation is preferable to war. I just hope there aren’t going to be any negotiations here. No one’s prepared to sit down with the likes of Metternich — he could run circles around most politicians I can think of. And, talking of cunning, Talleyrand is evidently trying to represent France at Vienna, since he’s already managed to make himself King Louis’ Foreign Minister – amazing! But no one wants France at the main negotiating table. That’s just for us, the Coalition, the major powers. Considering they recently ruled most of the continent, it must be humiliating for the French to find themselves no longer a ‘major power’, mustn’t it? I’ll wager Talleyrand will find a way in, all the same. He’s an eel…” How nice it is to be talking again so freely, no war to dampen the spirits. But, he thinks, you get an odd sense of foreboding, don’t you? It’s not supposed to be this peaceful and carefree on the earth — otherwise we’d never leave the bloody place, would we?
Over breakfast a few days later, when they’re still discussing these matters, Julie announces, once again darkly, that Fouchet too has managed to wheedle himself back into office as King Louis’ Minister of Police.
“God, those two are resilient, aren’t they? How do you know that?” And why are you telling me? he thinks.
After months of worrying silence, she’s finally received a letter from Rose, who now sounds quite hopeful about her future after a long period of uncertainty.
“In the abdication instrument Talleyrand drafted for Napoleon,” Julie tells him, “it was agreed that Rose could keep Malmaison and its contents, as well as getting a pension for life of one million francs a year. The Czar now visits her often as well, Rose says, and he’s promised his personal protection for her children and herself. They’ve become quite good friends…”
Indeed, things are looking up all over for Rose. Prince Frederick of Mecklenberg-Streilitz – a nephew of Queen Charlotte – has proposed marriage to her; but he’s half her age, so she doesn’t even answer him. She mourns Napoleon, constantly dreaming and thinking of him – although she can’t mention this with her new friends. She seems unwell; and she’s wearied by all the entertaining she must do for King Louis’ court, which is her role these days.
Christ, he thinks, one million francs! I should try losing a war if it pays so well. “Ah,” says Edward. ‘Her ‘role’, eh? Yet what happens when Alexander returns to Russia? Will Louis continue to uphold any of those promises?”
“She has many friends in the new government,” replies Julie confidently, spreading marmalade on her toast before adding, “Besides, it’s not so new. The army might have pledged allegiance to King Louis, but Rose says many still support Napoleon in their hearts. And it’s the same with many politicians; what’s more, the aristocrats who are returned to power, many of them, are people she personally rescued from exile… or else she had family connections with before the Revolution. Remember, she may have married Napoleon, but prior to that she was a Beauharnais. She lost her husband to the guillotine, and narrowly avoided the same fate herself. So, she has credentials on both sides of the fence. She’ll be all right whatever the future holds, I’m sure of it…” If only Julie could be this sure of her own future, he thinks.
“Does she hear from him on Elba?”
“He’s denied any communications at present. Even his mother can’t write to him. Nor can Marie-Louise – though I doubt she wants to. The son will probably grow up Austrian… perhaps with no idea who his father even was…”
Edward knows that Napoleon once said he’d rather see his son’s throat cut than have him grow up Austrian. Like my own son, he thinks, saying, “So they fear him still, do they? Such restrictions are less than fair for so great a man…”
“There’s confusion, I think, which always brings fear in its train. The economy’s a shambles; prices are high; there’s no work; most of the young men are dead; banditry is rife in the provinces… and no one likes seeing French cities occupied by Russians, Prussians and Austrians – it’s natural. Who enjoys being invaded?”
“Rose doesn’t seem to mind being ‘occupied’ by the Czar…” He wonders if he can rtsk a little wit on his edgy wife.
He can’t, but it’s too late now. Julie throws her toast at him, saying, “With your family, I wouldn’t criticize anyone’s conduct if I were you…”
He laughs, peeling the toast from his shirtsleeve. ‘I’ve always found,’ he says, ‘that Rose is more interested in Rose than she is in her country…’
“And your main interest is not yourself, I suppose?” she scoffs, with that shaft of darkness now in her voice again.
“Unjust! I was brought up to put my country first – and, to the best of my ability, I always have…’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘but the pity is your country seems to put you last…’
Touche. ‘Ah. Well… Let’s not bicker,’ he says. ‘These have been difficult years for everyone. You may even get to ask the Czar yourself if he intends to fulfill his promises to Rose…”
“Really? I would ask too, you know…”
He does know, but he says, ‘“Let’s see if he’ll even talk to my brother first…” A strange lassitude is coming over him, and at the same time a feeling that his journey is approaching the crossroads. The problem is that no map of his route exists, so when the cross is reached, which way to head? He seeks a solution on the square, where he often takes problems. Of the many assets a lodge in London has, perhaps the greatest is access to and companionship with some of the finest minds alive. He likes to keep this confidential, as do the finest minds or you’d know about them now. We respect his wishes, and will continue to respect them.
He now thinks: War does make things far more lively, doesn’t it? Long as it’s not too near. But does this explain why people seem to be far nicier to one another when doom threatens? The thought of having Boney’s boot smashing your noggin into omelette tomorrow probably forces decency on you.
No one would characterize the Prince Regent as ‘god-like’ – he’s barely even human much of the time– yet this epithet is now frequently used by newspapers to describe the appearance and demeanour of Alexander, Czar of All the Russias, when he steps onto our fair shores. It buzzes around the Regent’s roseate head like a wasp after jam; but he has other problems to deal with – many of them too. He’d planned to meet the czar — the tall, blond, god-like czar — at Shooter’s Hill, in Woolwich, not far from the military academy, where poor Eduard de Salaberry had been trained and where he harboured his dreams of glory. Wales was then supposed to accompany the deity of the Steppes to a grand welcoming banquet at Carlton House. But Alexander did not wish to go to Carlton House. He wished to join his sister at Pulteney’s Hotel – and Wales could instinctively tell that the czar was not a man whose wishes you deny. He wouldn’t even understand what denial is.Thus Wales accompanied him to Piccadilly, where he told Alexander, as courteously as he could manage, that he’d rendezvous with his Imperial Majesty and the Grand Duchess Katherine later that evening, to bring them over to Pall Mall. As Wales tells Edward – who’s once again called Kent — later that day, ‘That fucking bitch’s name makes me sick! You know what I think, Eddie – Kent I mean?’
‘No,’ says Kent, who loathes this rhetorical device. ‘But I’m sure you’ll tell me…’
‘She’s his spy; she arrived early to assess, judge and condemn everything in England – particularly me. That great lanky prick was so condescending…Ugh!’ He coughs this up to make sure the memory doesn’t fester inside him. But he now also worries, among a thousand other worries, that Carlton House is not grand enough for the czar. What little he knows of St. Petersberg – traveller’s tales, pictures, hearsay – convinces him the place is fabulously opulent – no, preposterously opulent. Yet he gets such diabolically bad advice. No one has told him Alexander lives on a modest island in the river, where he leads a fairly spartan existence, praying a lot, reading his Bible, kissing icons. ‘Jesus God almighty!’ Wales now says. ‘The money I’m paying for that fucking hotel!’ The future tense would have been more accurate, since Pulteney’s would have let off fireworks if a florin of the Regent’s sat in their strongbox. He starts looking through newspapers now, the same newspapers he imagines also lie on a table in the most expensive set of apartments Pulteney’s Hotel can provide. ‘Fucking hell,’ he squeaks. ‘God in bloody heaven!’ He calls urgently for brandy. Urgently!
Every one of these accursed rags has a lengthy article detailing his own disgraceful treatment of his wife and young daughter. A couple of them also claim he’s had his own poor father chained to a dungeon wall in Windsor Castle, where the sad old king is regularly scourged, sometimes even dunked into vats of freezing water. It’s not exactly a lie; but it’s not exactly the truth either. In Edward’s experience of the press, it never is, not exactly anyway. Wales’ press image has never been what you might call good, but it’s never been this bad – and at such a time too! You sympathize a little with him, because it is a good deal worse than usual today. There are also cartoons of him, and they can only be described as grotesque, profoundly humiliating on purpose, suggesting to readers that their Regent is a national joke, the hilariously vile two-ton freak in the sideshow called Piccadilly. Jesus! Wakes sees the czar and his sister guffawing together in their pricey rooms, laughing themselves dizzy over the bloated oaf who rules England, weeping with mirth as they beat their chair arms, throwing up clouds of dirty English dust. ‘What am I supposed to do with this, this, this?’ He cannot find the words, or perhaps doesn’t want to find them.
It brings Edward close to tears as well. He doesn’t like seeing anyone or anything hurt, and this one is hurt very badly. We’re all so vulnerable, aren’t we? ‘It’s just the press,’ he says consolingly. ‘They’ll know that…’
‘You print this in Russia,’ yells the Regent, smoke in his crimson mouth, ‘they feed you your own liver while you’re boiled alive – and that’s just the entree… Christ! I could weep…’ He could, but instead of weeping, he smashes a group of porcelain shepherdesses. ‘Which clodhopping fuckwit thought it was a good idea to let newspapers print whatever the fuck they feel like printing?’ he screams. Obviously, his vaunted control of the press is rather more limited than he’d claimed. Even Napoleon had been obliged to shut down a hundred papers to get himself some fair treatment by journalists. Yet you can’t do this in England anymore – or not easily. Wales dreams of absolutism, the old days and old ways: the rack, the xyster, the iron maiden, the flaying, the axeman still sharpening his blade. Set some examples, Wales is thinking; get some respect. Where’s the fucking respect gone? Then, finally, he does cry, a huge pink baby swaddled in damask. Those days are gone, he tells himself, and they won’t come back. Czarmaggeddon is here to stay. God help us! He blows his streaming nose in a newspaper, smearing printer’s ink over the twin balloons of his glowing cheeks.
‘Well,’ says Kent, about to leave, because he needs air agin, ‘good luck for tonight, George…’
“Luck? I don’t need good luck,” Wales rumbles. “What I need is is a weapon nothing can withstand, and a good government, not that fucking dozey, stupid, know-nothing, pud-pulling, pox-ridden coven of sissies! We need some real laws here, not the fucking limp-wristed suggestions that moon-faced crew of big girls dash off on their scented notepaper! I wipe my arse with that!” The steam has run out; and he’s not really talking to Kent anyway. He’s not really talking to anyone, not even himself.
Edward says, ‘Right then…’ He wishes Maria Fitzherbert were still around, and wonders if Wales does too, You don’t ask him that, though — God, o! He needs someone who loves him at a time like this, someone to stroke his boiling head and tell him it’ll be all right, not to worry. Maria did love him. But does anyone else, has anyone else ever loved him? ‘We’ll get through this, Georgie,’ he tells him, ‘you’ll see – right through it…’ He strides purposefully for the door before Wales, whose stare is now unnerving, can say another word.
His strides are not quite quick enough, for as the door is closing behind him, the Regent’s howl batters against the panelling: ‘Fuck you, bird-brain! That’s your idea of useful fucking advice, is it? Garrgh…’ And whatever the rest of this thought was to be melts forever through the marble and down into the dank foundations of Carlton House.
As events transpire, though, what Wales really most needs that night is not to have an angry mob outside his palazzo demonstrating its disgust with the “information” in today’s papers.
‘Shame-shame!’ they shout. A lot.
Preparing to leave for Pulteney’s Hotel to collect the perfidious Russians, the Regent is told he can’t safely venture beyond his sturdy doors.
‘We want a decent Regent’, yells the mob, managing to make adjective and noun rhyme faultlessly. Rocks are hurled, damaging a few closed shutters. The air has that tang of incipient thunder in it, but it emanates from the mob not the sky. And the mob is growing, as if it’s breeding in there more mobs, countless mobs, climbing up the walls and dancing on his roof. Soon both Piccadilly and Pall Mall are blocked, and no traffic gets through, not even the hackneys – not even those using Shank’s pony.
A further humiliation now rides down from heaven and jumps at the Regent’s face, stopping him dead in his track, as he’s apprised of the situation outside, which seems to him markedly worse than it was five minutes earlier. Are they lying to him? He peeks through slats in a shatter, No, it would seem they aren’t lying. Where the hell do all these people come from? But this is not what he’s facing at all, this mob. He’s now obliged to send the czar a note stating that “minor disturbances” in the streets – normal at this time of year, of course — make it impossible for him to travel out, much to his bitter disappointment. But what can you do when your people need to have their fun, eh? What can you do? But he’ll look forward even more keenly to becoming better acquainted with Alexander at the gala tomorrow evening. My deepest regrets etc. Great, thinks Wales now, knowing exactly how Alexander will read this screed: The oaf can’t even keep the peace in his own capital, Katherine, hey? Then some corrosive Russian proverb, no doubt. Wales stares at a stretch of tangerine silk wall paper for a moment, and then kicks it so hard his foot goes six inches through the plaster and lath, his shoe breaks off, lodged in the wall, as he looks into a mirror tenderly, almost smiling, and then he screams so loudly that a Chinese urn nearby hums and window panes buzz: ‘Can someone tell ne why is this happening to me?’ Each word is treated as if it’s unique, with pauses between them, like music, yet no intonation, as if he’s chanting. Because Wales has no one who will tell him anything now, not even Jesus or God. He nods to his own face energetically, expecting it to nod back. But it doesn’t. The Regent is certain there will be some respite. Things are like that: up and then down.
Next day, the midday papers make him freeze in mid-action, the kipper poised on the rim of his mouth. Now he gags, now he bucks like a yearling. He allows this newspaper to float away and drift to the floor whispering as it goes, snatching up another, and another, and another, going through each of them like a blind man, who turns and turns and turns because he has no need to stop on any page. These rags all have versions of the same story: How the “self-effacing, tall, handsome, god-like Czar Alexander” had taken a dawn stroll in the park with his sister, as if they were just ordinary folk, exchanging greetings, offering civilities, and not the least bit concerned by the crowd following them at a respectful distance. My goodness, they’re not even accompanied by guards… unlike some people we know. So great is the czar’s divine simplicity that, returned to the front steps of his and Pulteney’s hotel, he takes off his hat and bows to the adoring horde of onlookers, who cheer long after he and his sister have vanished inside. How fortunate are the Russian people to have an emperor of such modesty, such courtesy, and such inordinately great good looks! Such golden hair, such celestial nobility, such imposing height, effuse others. If only we were so lucky!
It does not get better. It gets worse. A cartoon – yes, another vile cartoon — which shows the Prince Regent, a gigantic bawling babe trapped in a Carlton House so insufficient for his porcine bulk that his head sticks through the roof. And a mob pelts it with, of course, dung; while, towering even in the far distance, a god-like czar strolls, strolls as if our acres were his own acres, smiling serenely to sweepers, tramps, soldiers and aristocrats alike, as they in turn raise their hats to him. Fuck: the expletive could well be branded on Wales’ forehead now. The caption reads: ‘Georgie want walky in park too!’, as a matronly figure replies, ‘Then Georgie have to behave like that good Emperor Alexander if he’s to be allowed outside the nursery…’
‘Oh. No!’ says Edward, reading the same papers down in Kensington. ‘It makes you feel very sorry for him, doesn’t it?’
‘Not really,’ Julie says. ‘Not really…’
‘Don’t be so heartless, my love. He’s my brother. And he will soon be our king.’
‘Then God help England,’ she says, pausing briefly before adding, ‘I suppose we can always move…’
‘I can’t,’ he tells her, anxiety scribbling on his brow. ‘I have to go where I’m told to go…’
‘I know,’ she says. ‘Sad isn’t it? I’ll have to move on my own then, won’t I?’
He’s about to fire off a barrage of objections and hurts, but he lets the ammunition slide down and back to its arsenal, staring at her instead, but not really seeing her. He feels the saliva drying on his gums, and has to close his mouth before it atrophies.
‘I thought that would shut you up,’ she says. And she’s right – it has.