‘What has happened?’ he asks Maria Fitzherbert, who’s now using the Knightsbridge house as her London home. ‘Your message sounded so…well, so desperate…’
‘It is desperate, Edward,’ she says. ‘I’ve done something very stupid…’ There are dark smudges below her eyes, which glow red from an epic of weeping. She’s deathly pale, and her wooden teeth clack like castanets as she speaks. What she’s done, however, doesn’t seem so stupid. The Prince of Wales – who must now be called the Prince Regent — has cast her aside again, taking up with the volatile and much misliked Lady Hertford. To show off his new mistress to a few hundred of his closest friends, Wales has planned a great banquet to be held at Brighton Pavilion. With the kind of cruelty usually reserved for poor Caroline, Wales has insisted that Maria attend this dinner – presumably so he can flaunt his lithesome young society trollop before her. Maria had refused to attend. Wales, who cannot be refused anything, is roasting with a rage akin to lunacy, smashing his way through Carlton House like a rogue elephant. Maria is much liked by the family for her calming influence on the Regent, so York and Clarence have tried to make Wales see reason and make up with her. But instead of being listened to they were chased down Piccadilly by Wales wielding a Turkoman scimitar. His fury over being refused will not abate, says Maria.
‘I think you did the right thing,’ he says, watching a bronze leaf fall from the larch tree outside and spin down to become food for the garden. We all end up as food, he thinks. It seems better than dust. The world is one vast gullet, ceaselessly consuming itself and all things that are. ‘Why should you subject yourself to such humiliation?’ he asks her.
‘No,’ she says, ‘that’s not the very stupid thing…’
‘I see. And?’
‘When Georgie confronted me,’ says Maria, ‘I told him you had advised me not to attend…’
‘Ah.’ Christ! he thinks. Why not tell him we had a bacchanalian orgy with Caroline and little Charlotte… on top of his Rembrandt? ‘Ah, I see,’ is all he can usefully say.
‘I’m so sorry, Edward,’ she says, touching his elbow with a trembling hand. ‘It just flew out of my mouth. I wasn’t thinking straight. His rages always affect my nerves…’
‘What’s done is done,’ he tells her, the phrase leaking its meaningless platitude like rain, as he squeezes her tiny quivering hand with his great paw. He thinks: Yes, flew out of your mouth and slapped up against the library ceiling, where Wales can now watch it there every day, shuddering like aspic, and growing larger, growing uglier. ‘We all say foolish things in the heat of the moment,’ he says, in a kindly tone. Why not say nothing in a kindly tone? ‘You know George: his moods are like summer storms…’
‘Not this one,’ Maria tells him gravely. ‘He curses you; he calls you ‘King of Meddlers’ and says he’ll make you suffer… Suffer! I told him you hadn’t really advised me, that I’d lied about it – but he won’t believe me…’
‘Ah. I see. Well…’ A pause. He can’t afford to offend the Regent, in whose hands his fate now rests. But what to do about this? For want of any obvious or feasible solution, he later sends Maria a letter: What has passed on this occasion renders it utterly necessary for me to implore you, whenever I have the happiness of seeing you again, to never touch upon that most delicate subject, the state of things between the Prince and yourself… He imagines this note could be produced when Wales accuses him of meddling. See, I told you I forbade Maria to mention your personal problems with me… No, it wasn’t very good, was it?
But he hears nothing from his eldest brother – and nothing is not a good sign in the Regent’s case. Yet there is a slight and unexpected comfort in company. Edward’s other brothers are also nervous about their future under a man best known for his capriciousness, cruelty and irrationality. There are many whispered meetings in private homes. How best to deal with him? How best to behave with him? Edward has even begun to dye streaks of grey out of the fashionable mutton-chop side whiskers he now sports, just in case Wales considers him too old for an important posting, or even an unimportant one. He also does the best he can with the few wires of hair left on his shiny pink pate, growing the abundance above his ears a foot long, so he can glue sheaves of it across his skull. At 43, he’s now aware the prime has passed; so, he must look fitter than he had at 33 to dispel any impressions of decreptitude. What with the war, that new command just might appear – it just might. Why shouldn’t it? The war seems to be approaching a peak of some sort – or a trough. He lifts weights; he runs; he does 200 sit-ups daily, and 200 push-ups; he climbs a rope attached to the elm in Castle Hill’s garden; he lives in hope, the sole tenant of Pandora’s box – which he’s always envisaged as a coffin. But hope has moved out, moved on. All the same, soon he’s fitter than he was at 23. But still no word comes from the Regent. He thinks: Well, at least I’m not being summoned to my execution – surely, he’s not too angry to express his anger, is he? The old familiar anxiety over this great British silence impels him to take other steps to mollify the man, bum-kissing steps, as his father would call them. In two unctuous speeches in the House of Lords, he objects to an act designed to limit the Regent’s powers. This is something many once wanted, even him — but no more. He further organizes a petition, which is signed by 32 peers, to protest these same proposed limitations. Well, he thinks, rationalizing his actions, if I were regent, I’d not want limitations on my power, would I? So why should he suffer them? Would I want my powers of toadying limited? That’s the question.
At Luneberg, back when he was sixteen, there was an officer in training who always toadied up to the commandant in a sickening manner. One day he reported an impropriety committed by a fellow trainee. The commandant punished that trainee with extra guard duty; and then he called for the toady, who was informed that he too would be punished: for being a snitch. His punishment was licking clean the boots from a squadron of engineers working all day in the marshes digging drainage ditches. He performed this task in the parade square, where his fellow officers passed by frequently, calling out names, mocking him. He never told another tale or toadied ever again. It had been a lesson to Edward, though evidently not a sufficiently thorough lesson to dissuade him from this current shameless toadyfest. He imagines having to kneel in Pall Mall and lick clean a thousand pairs of mucking-out boots from the Regent’s stables. Yet what else can he do but toady his way through this uncertain new world, this uncertain new Wales? Edward confesses to himself that he’s become a superfluous man. His field marshal’s baton only comes out of its crimson velvet case these days when he’s ordered by the Duke of York’s secretary or a minor aide to inspect a regiment in a purely ceremonial manner. He always finds many faults with the men, but he doesn’t say a word; that’s not his function anyway. He’s now just an effigy, draped in gold braid and wheeled out for events too boring or trivial for anyone else to bother with. If he reprimanded men he’d be laughed at as a parody of the nit-picking martinet that York’s slanders have now made him in all the barrackrooms and officers’ clubs from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He’s heard the irritating rhymes:
For shaving rashes, a thousand lashes; Late to bed, shoot him dead; Laces unstrung, that man hung…
Ambition wanes when you’re so insignificant, so superfluous that even the jokes grow old and stale.
The war has also now made his charity work difficult, with most able-bodied men conscripted, and their families too hard-pressed to think about education. Women and children must labour long hours just to put food on the table. Money seems to be the solution to most of today’s pressing problems; and he’s donated considerable sums to purchase necessities for the poor – or he had until Mr. Coutts had forbidden him in the severest terms from donating funds he did not have. Now he raises money through proxies; but money itself is in short supply these days. Life is on hold; England is on hold, it seems, until the war is over. But he cannot afford to be on hold. It’s not in his nature.
‘You’re right about that,’ says Julie, struggling to sound patient. ‘For heaven’s sake, go out and do something! You’re driving me crazy pacing up and down here…’ She doesn’t have the heart to go on, but she easily could, with a list a hundred items long.
American forces defeat a tribal army led by the charismatic Tenskwatawa, whose brother is known as the Prophet; and the earth itself responds to this: a massive earthquake in the Mississippi River Valley alters the Missouri River’s course for a while. The omens and portents are especially active as the year 1812 begins. By the time it ends the wheel of history will have turned sufficiently to make the beginning unrecognizable. The reaction against change is everywhere, from the restless Indian tribes resisting America’s inexorable drive further west, to the Luddites raging against the machine all across northern England, and Napoleon in Paris planning his punishment of the Russian czar, who has changed his mind dramatically about their alliance, and kicked their putative friendship to Siberia. The very air trembles with discord; and you can taste blood on the north wind.
He’s been visiting the Princess Royal, little Charlotte, weekly in her apartments at Windsor, where she’s utterly isolated and has no friends. Her father never comes, and her mother is forbidden. He also invites her out to Ealing regularly for the weekends Wales had approved. There’s a dual purpose to this: it’s for her delight, of course; but it’s partly to fill the gaping hole in Julie’s life caused by the wrenching departure of her sons. Jean de Mestre has, as we know, returned to Canada with the Woods; and young Eduard, having completed his training at Woolwich, has now been sent to fight with Wellington in Spain. She’s not happy about this posting; and he’s not happy Wellington is doing His, Edward’s, job.
“It’s only because you want to join Wellington but can’t,” Julie had complained bitterly, when she first heard the news. “You should have had him posted to Canada, where he could at least see his parents and be safe. You’re always so selfish!”
“These are glorious days for any soldier,” he tells her, tired of her unwarranted accusations. “He wanted the honour, and he would have resented me for denying it to him. Besides, his parents have Charles over there…”
“One son instead of four? Only you with your rotten childhood could think children can be parcelled up and mailed around willy-nilly…It’s you who yearn for honours,” she says, her voice creaking with a rage barely held beneath the surface. “He only wanted to please you because he was still under the illusion that you’re a big man over here — instead of…”
Little Charlotte cuts off the impending insult by entering the drawing room and saying, “Are you two fighting again?”
“It’s a discussion, my love,” he tells her, in the way adults do, “not a fight…”
“That’s what my Papa always says when he smashes the furniture,” she tells them knowingly. She knows too much for one so young. “But I know the difference,’ she then says. ‘I’m not a baby anymore. Were you fighting about me?”
“Of course not, darling,” Julie assures her. You’d think her maternal nature itself had been impugned. “Why would we do that?”
“Everyone fights about me,” Charlotte states cheerily, “so why should you two be any different? I’m not a cretin, you know. I understand these things now.” You’re inclined to believe she does – poor baby.
“Then understand,” he says, too abruptly, “that Madame Julie and I were discussing our godson’s posting to fight in Spain.”
“He’s lucky then,” says Charlotte, “because simply everyone at Windsor wants a chance to fight Boney the Ogre. The equerries are always whining about running errands when they could be making history. They say it will be embarrassing to tell their grandchildren that their role in the greatest war ever was taking mail to London…”
“You see,” he tells Julie, concealing a gloat of triumph, “Eduard is doing what others can only dream of…”
“Dreams can often become nightmares,” she cuts in quietly, sounding as if she’s possessed of that arcane island knowingness, the kind of sight that sees around time’s bend.
What he wonders is how you know you want to see what’s hidden around there. Once seen, whatever it is, your future will be a swift or slow slide towards it. Into the arms of joy or the claws of horror, to Edward it holds no attraction.
Rain is a symbol of grace, so they say, which also freely falls from heaven. There’s nothing graceful about these floods, though – nothing at all. Yet again England is under water, and people are rowing or punting along the highways. Another great advantage of the steam trains, we learn now, is that they aren’t much affected by flooding; they just snort, clank and hiss their way through three feet of mud as if it were air. Tracks are criss-crossing the country these days, a steel web bringing coal from Newcastle, taking wool from Wiltshire and cheese from Cheshire, taking whatever’s available to wherever it’s wanted. This modern age will be marked by efficiency. Along with the web of canals, the nation’s arteries circulate their blood as efficiently as we ourselves do – most of us, that is. There’s a difficulty here, however: some railway lines to the northern shires are rather quiet, because little has been manufactured up there since the French embargoed our imports of raw materials. The potteries are doing well, and so are the mines; but the mills can barely manage a quarter of their usual output – and even that is largely due to a resumption of the trade in Russian hemp. Czar Alexander is thumbing his nose at Napoleon. We hope he’s put his army back together, and that the newly freed serfs will want to fight in it now they don’t have to. But it eventually turns out that they do have to – the weather of Alexander’s mind will change again; and then it will again change. Every five years, so Metternich says.
But this global ballyhoo recedes swiftly into a distant background when a letter is delivered to Castle Hill Lodge by equerry. It’s from a senior officer commanding the Royal Fusiliers in India, which is where Maurice and Chevalier de Salaberry have been posted to fight in the war against recalcitrant rajkumars, nose-thumbing nawabs and mettlesome maharajas. The letter is brief, yet far from perfunctory. Both Salaberry boys, it says, have died from dysentery within a few weeks of each other; and they’ve been buried in the same mausoleum at Calcutta’s British Cemetery. Every officer contributied to the cost in ‘a small tribute’ to the ‘fondest memories’ of … well, of him, of the Duke of Kent. Such memories are evidently still held dear by his old regiment. How hated and feared could he have possibly been? A marble obelisk was erected for the brothers’ tomb, its inscription saying that their guardian, Prince Edward, had once commanded the regiment to which they gave their lives. Above this inscription is carved, he learns, the eye in a triangle, as an anonymous nod from one brother mason to another.
“My God,’ he groans, ‘how am I going to tell Louis this?”
“God only knows,” she says, ‘because I have no idea. But this is not about you!’ She’s obliged to sit down in case she faints, unfastening the buttons on her high lace collar. “How can you possibly tell parents their children are dead? Surely no words exist for such a dreadful message? But no doubt you’ll find some…” It’s said in a whisper so quiet you can’t discern if it’s a slight or just a simple fact.
A few weeks later, they both discover how the army itself performs this impossibly dreadful task, when Lieutenant-General Weatherall himself, temporarily assigned to supervising training at the Duke of York’s headquarters, arrives panting at the house. “I thought it best I bring this myself,” he says, wheezing and handing Edward an official document.
With a terrible presentiment, he opens the letter to learn that his son, their son, their ‘godson’, young Eduard de Salaberry, had been killed during the storming of Badajos. The fighting was unusually ferocious and bloody, writes the boy’s commanding officer; many died, but Eduard fought on heroically right up to the end. His sacrifice had not been in vain, the letter concludes, for it helped us gain a great victory. He would be sorely missed by his comrades, and all who knew him as an exemplary soldier, aimiable, kind, genourous, and fearlessly brave.
“Thank you, Fred,” he tells Weatherall, his voice coming from deep inside a cave or tunnel. “Will you forgive me if I don’t invite you in?’ he says, wondering if he himself will ever be invited in again. ‘I’ve no idea how to tell Madame Julie this. No idea at all…”
“Without the letter,” Weatherall says, swallowing back his feelings, “I’d have had no idea how to tell you. I still have no idea what to say… What can you say to this?”
“No words, Fred. No words. Your love is all I need right now; and I know I have it. Thank you for coming yourself…’
‘God, Edward. I couldn’t have sent a stranger…’
‘No, I suppose not. But York would have…’
‘But he doesn’t know who Eduard really is…I mean was…’
Alone with the letter, sorrow climbs up inside him, a black spider snaring the heart in its black webs. He heads up to his library as stealthily as possible; but he’s not stealthy enough.
“What’s happened?” Julie says, meeting him on the landing. ‘You look positively awful…’
All he can do is hand her the letter. He has no words for this at all. Nor does she. There are none. They just stand there, pale, trembling, unable to breathe properly, the letter held as if it’s a treaty just blown in burning from Hades. The price is no less than all you have…
‘It’s my fault,’ he says, after what seems to be an hour has passed. ‘You were right…’
‘It’s no time for recriminations,’ she says, leaning into his strong arms. ‘I know you loved him as much as I – and it’s all that matters now. Love is all we can ever give him now…’
They say that losing a child can destroy your relationship, since you can never again look at one another without reviving your grief and loss. A cold shadow has fallen over their life – to be sure it has, icy and dark. He’s uncertain if it will ever leave, uncertain if a sufficient light will be able to enter again and dispel the endless night.
She says: “I can’t write to Souris so soon after the others. I can’t – it wouldn’t be right. Now she has only one son instead of four. Thank God you had Charles posted back to Canada. Thank God!’ He wonders how it’s possible for him to have done something right here. ‘She’ll understand our grief will be immense this time, won’t she?’ says Julie. ‘That will excuse the delay in writing, won’t it?”
This concern for etiquette amazes him. Is this how she deals with the worst news on earth – by being practical? The clockwork that makes a woman tick is endlessly surprising, often profound, always mysterious. By comparison, men are mules hauling a baffling weight on a crude cart along life’s highways or goat tracks, never admitting what’s wrapped up in there, never finding the words, less still the emotions.
He nods his hasty agreement to her proposals and decisions. As ever, she’s right. The house is burning, yet she’s calm, cool as ice. It is unusual, though not unwanted. In the middle of a normal day, death comes uninvited. You don’t invite him; he invites himself. There he is, with his black cowl and scythe, to mow us all down for food, for a ravenous nature that is our nature and the nature of the world. He’s been told that the Mussalman faith says the Angel of Death perches on the headboard of your bed, extracting your soul as if pulling up an anchor. Then you must cross a bottomless abyss on a razor thin wire. When you’re half way across, arms out, legs shuddering, a dark wind blowing hard, a hideous old hag rushes at you, trying to wrestle you off balance. ‘And then what happens?’ he’d asked the friend who told him this. ‘No one knows,’ said the friend. ‘It seems likely that no one makes it across, doesn’t it?’ Where was this ‘across’? he now wonders. Where were you heading? What happened to the Angel of Death? Is it your body that must walk the wire without a soul? Or is it the soul in an astral body? He likes the pedagogy of last things, the pedagogy of eschatology; he collects these afterlife dramas. Thought keeps grief away for a spell. But an Englishman is not supposed to have emotions in public; you go to your room and you don’t come out until they’re over, until yoou’re done with them. They both seem to deal with this in the same way, though: in their rooms. Perhaps the shock and sorrow are too great for any expression of them? No one ventures to remark that the family they could never have is now the family they can never have.
Death is dealt with in curious ways. A week or so later, they receive a parcel of young Eduard’s belongings from Spain. Amongst them is a letter the boy had written to him, to the Duke of Kent, on the eve of that fatal battle, as if he knew for certain his life was approaching its culmination. He wrote : I am ordered to storm one of the breaches this evening; as the service is rather dangerous, and I may or may not return, I beg leave to assure Your Royal Highness, as well as Madame, that whatever may happen to me I shall at every moment feel how much I am indebted to you. Believe, Sir, that my last moment shall be to wish all the happiness which you as well as Madame so eminently deserve. I have the honour to be, with eternal gratitude, Your Royal Highness’s most obedient and grateful servant…
“He knew he was going to die,” says Julie, holding the crumpled paper to her heart. “Yet how curious that what he knows will be his last letter is written to you… or to us, and not to the Salaberrys. Do you think he…” She trails off, staring at the ceiling, and to heaven above it, where her God gazes down benevolently. Yet He’s not so benevolent, is He?
Edward completes her thought: “…that he sensed, or even knew we were his real parents?” It’s his belief too. Or he wants it to be.
“Yes,’ she says. ‘Is it possible?”
“When your instinct tells you death is near, who knows what else it may reveal? I do believe there are faculties in us about which our modern science knows nothing: because they can’t be weighed or measured, and they don’t appear upon command.” Yes, he thinks, it’s true enough. He then says, “And they may come from somewhere else…”
“From God?” This would be her preference for the source of blessings.
“Yes,’ he agrees. ‘It’s a good enough name for the mystery, isn’t it? God. Yes, indeed. God…’
This life is but an thoroughfare of woe,
And we been pilgrymes going to and fro…
As spring approaches, disguised as drear midwinter, no one thinks or talks about anything but the news from Europe. Even the Luddites, encouraged by praise from Lord Byron himself, cease their ignorant riot and make someone read the papers to them, so they can begin to stagger from the Middle Ages into this fantastic modern age. The papers they will read, or at least hear, have also advanced, or a few of them have, tottering with their pints of porter out of gossip’s gutters onto the broad pavements of public service. They even print several pages of reasonably-verified news. But what news!
With an army reported to be 800,000 strong, Napoleon seems poised to invade Russia. He no longer trusts Czar Alexander, who has broken too many promises. The French have 100,000 horse and carry enough oats and hay to feed them each twenty pounds a day, for there will be nothing to eat on the barren steppes of Muscovy. The baggage train also carries rations for all these men, along with powder, shot, weaponry, medicines, boots and extra uniforms. Coming along too with this horde are many of their wives, lovers, hangers-on and camp followers. There is a carnival aspect to such vast armies. But the logistics are confounding. The emperor has never campaigned like this before; his most successful battles were fought with rarely more than 200,000 troops; speed has always been his secret, but with such a vast force speed will be impossible. Edward thinks: This sort of lumbering baggage train was the Prussian handicap. I saw it; I served under its weight; I suffered from it. Why is he making the same mistake? According to Vincy’s informant, Napoleon is now feeling his age. He’d always seen himself retired at 40 and pursuing gentler arts; so, at 43, he now compensates for the loss of agility and energy with sheer size. Edward, now 44, also gets from Weatherall copies of our agent Sir Robert Wilson’s reports from St. Petersberg, where Wilson is sedulously preparing to lead a Russian regiment if the French invade. Wilson says the country is rich in horses: swift, hardy creatures bred in the wild by Cossacks, who can ride them, he says, like the Devil. The Russian army, he tells us, is entirely reorganized, perhaps not as well-equipped as the French, nor as large, but far fiercer and more courageous. Unlike the French army, which is comprised of many nationalities, they’re all ethnic Russians and speak a common language. They’ll fight to the bitter end for God and their sacred soil; whereas Napoleon’s men only fight for him and a vague idealogy, or even vaguer promises of national sovereignty back in some godforsaken midden on the Turk’s doorstep. The czar will not lead his soldiers, though. He’s still chastened by Austerlitz. Instead, he’s put his mimister of war, Barclay de Tolley, a Baltic German, in temporary charge. This has angered some senior generals, like Wittgenstein, Bennigssen and Bagratian. Wilson thinks that the commander will eventually be Field Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutusov, who’s in his late sixties, and is grossly overweight, with one eye, but an impressively heroic career behind him. Kutusov has just come trailing his own clouds of bloody glory from victories over the Ottomans, victories which have secured Russia’s vulnerable south-eastern borders. More to the point, the rank and file adore him. Alexander really has no other choice for a commander able to go up against Napoleon. Wilson hints at a secret strategy too – but it’s secret, so we don’t know what it is. The Russians do seem ucannily certain of a French invasion, however, and their certainty is vindicated daily, as Napoleon heads slowly for Dresden, where his main army is encamped. According to Vincy’s man, a carnival armosphere reigns during this stage-managed procession. The road to Dresden has been resurfaced to make the emperor’s progress smooth; fires and coloured lights line it on either side, with cheering locals at an all-day party, as the hundreds of ornate French carriages roll by. Children are held up to get a glimpse of the great man and his empress. The kings of Saxony and Westphalia – Napoleon’s brother Jerome is now on that throne –are there to greet him and pay homage. Prussia’s defeated monarch, Frederick William III, comes out personally to grovel before the Master of Europe, who treats him ‘like a drill sergeant’. The city is brilliantly illuminated too, with fireworks, pig roasts, opera, masses in the cathedral, clog dancing, and barrels of beer – and this is just all through the night. During the day there are boar hunts, logging contests, pugilism, a beauty contest, many, many speeches, and no doubt numerous other Teutonic entertainments, most involving frothy beer swigged from ceramic buckets.
Napoleon is heard to remark, ‘How glorious it is to have all the kings of the earth at my feet — except the Sultan, the Czar and the mad King of England…’
Ah, dear me, Edward thinks. Don’t poke sticks at the lion unless you’re sure his cage is locked shut and you have the key. But our brave old lion is permanently locked away, and no one has the key. It is simply not possible to envisage the Prince Regent involved in any battle, except the one to haul him from his stupor and off to bed at night. It reputedly now takes nine footmen to lug Wales’ carcas from ballroom to bedroom. The King is ill; but what’s the Prince Regent’s excuse?
Vincy’s anonymous informant believes that the reasons Napoleon has given for attacking Russia are specious. In truth, he fears the czar as his only rival, fears he will ally with England for a war on two fronts – three if you count Spain; and four if Ottomans join the alliance. Therefore, he must defeat the Russians conclusively, and then be free to focus on Britain. Yet, we now find, Czar Alexander is evidently still offering peace at this late hour, in a letter sent to Dresden. All he asks of Napoleon in return for this peace is Sweden. As the Prussian festivities blaze on, with dancing in the streets, clowns in the streets, a division of fetching flaxen frauleins in the streets, with marching bands, and yelling faces crammed into every open window, the letter ends with a question: Will the emperor invade, or is this just a show of arms to rattle Alexander back into obedience?
Napoleon has said, ‘War is a foolish art; it just consists of being stronger in a certain place…’ But he says many things, far too many, often contradicting himself. It can be regarded as a flaw. It can be, but something else must also be weighed in the balance: A genius is allowed to do that, indeed, to do anything at all – as long as he wins.
‘By God! This is the time to be in Canada, eh?’ says Weatherall, cheerily walking into Edward’s Castle Hill office.
‘Canada?’ he roars incredulously, looking up from a smudged double-entry ledger. ‘Don’t you mean Granada… or on the continent somewhere?’ If spark or verve are there, you can’t see them.
Not a man much given to excitability, Weatherall darts about like a child whose lizards have escaped. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ he says.
‘Heard what, Fred? You know I loathe the rhetorical…’ He tells this to the ledger sprawling across the handsome whorls of his cherrywood desk, which is made for battle plans, poems, novels, even plays, but not ledgers.
Weatherall can barely contain himself, and his news now tumbles out like coal from a sack. ‘The Yanks have declared war on us,’ he cries. ‘It’s war, Edward!’
‘The devil they have!’
But, devil or not, they have, perhaps taking advantage of our European distraction. It’s being called ‘Mr. Madison’s war’, after the current president – what is he, their sixth, or maybe seventh? The Americans imagine they have a sufficient stack of grievances to warrant a war, but they’re new boys at our school, still wet behind the ears. True, we’ve impressed some 10,000 of their merchant sailors into the Royal Navy; and we’re encouraging and arming Indian tribes to fight their settlers and slipshod soldiery west of the Ohio River. But you don’t start an intercontinental war over such piddling trifles, do you? No, it’s only an excuse to make another grab for Canada. This time we’re going to have to make them regret it so bitterly, teach them a lesson so severe that they’ll never pull the same stunt ever again. Damn nuisance though, shipping armies to and fro across thousands of miles of perilous black water. Not again, surely?
It isn’t going to be a big war, but, Edward thinks, the Salaberrys can’t be too happy about seeing their only remaining son now journeying off to Niagara for the conflict. Like Louis de Salaberry, Edward had been divided over the issue of whether we ought to assemble a massive land force in Canada and take back our colonies. Not any more. The Yanks have started it, so it behooves us to finish the business, finish it to our satisfaction: hang the traitors, free those poor slaves, make equitable and honourable treaties with the native tribes, and then get back to more promising issues – like seizing for ourselves a tropical empire extending from Mexico to… where? Maybe Tierra del Fuego – but who knows? No doubt our American cousins will be overjoyed to be finally spared the irksome, tortuous, unprofitable and probably impossible task of trying to construct an egalitarian state, or really a democratic phantasmagoria resembling the old Athenian model merely by one word – democracy – and to construct it without plans, even without any certainty that such gimcrack utopianism can work – which human nature, along with Rousseau, tells us it cannot. Edward’s been told that a dozen or so plutocrats already own everything worth owning and explain it all away to the churls by convincing them that this is a country where anyone can make millions, supported simply by the energy, desire and will to do it. It’s an immense continent, and no one yet owns most of the land – although the Indians have a puzzling caveat on this subject – but someone must own it, sooner or later. Probably sooner, since we hear western states, ones of questionable legality, have begun giving land away for free to encourage migration westwards. For free! What kind of governance is that? You may be safe in Boston, Philadelphia, maybe New Orleans; but millions of square miles west of the Mississippi all the way to the Pacific coast are lawless, ruled by brute force and firearms, presided over by warlord gang leaders, whose wealth comes from theft, whose power is in the barrel of a gun, whose vast domains are all potential – and may remain that way, untapped, unused, left to wasteful nature, while its stewards carouse, plunder, murder and practice all the arts of rapine. What decent person wants to dwell in such a place? However, what man of means and ability does not want to deploy his skills on such a tabula rasa? Edward and many of the men he knows now see the golden opportunity of taking back the American colonies, and then carving up all of the American vastness for themselves. Once the traitors have been executed and their militias are disbanded, of course. The very real possibility of Britannia ruling, not just the waves but the world now arises – every man his own sultan or nawab in his own country – and it is more intoxicating than opium or madragora. Edward is not alone in thinking the war should be waged before the peace and its division of spoils can even be contemplated. With millions at war in Europe, where hundreds of thousands lie dead on battlefields, though, the time is too far out of joint to risk a Brit versus Ex-Brit rumble on the world’s other side – or take the idea of it very seriously at all. Perhaps, Edward tells himself, it isn’t meant to be taken seriously because, let’s face it, it is not a very serious war, this new thing in the new world. Events, which are reported in confusing great gobbets like whale spune, appear to back up his theory.
After a failed attempt to take Quebec with a pincer movement from the west, US forces have mostly contained fighting to the southern border regions, as if they’re organizing Morris dancers or boxing tournaments. This sort of restrained non-conflict doesn’t really capture anyone’s attention here. Why would it when we have the greatest show on earth, not exactly nearby, but close enough for discomfort? You don’t watch some bow-legged teen cowboy with a bandeau on his ten-gallon hat pretend his rag-tag straw-chewing militia, all five of them, or six, are a real army, when you’ve got Napoleon, Emperor of the French, probably the greatest military leader since Alexander, Caesar and Scipio Africanus all in one, with the largest army ever assembled in all of history, about to rewrite that history without any Romanovs in Russia, and then draw up a new map of the world without any Russia. No, you aren’t watching the freezing vague Canadian border for the odd crack of birdshot. You watch the equally vague Russian border and tens of thousands of bronze cannon, many of them cast from the melted statuary of captured cities, and you watch that enormous little man in his old grey-green greatcoat and the bicorn hat with a tricolour cockade, you watch him strare passively into his spyglass, wondering what he sees in the smouldering distance. You watch and wonder east not west, because your only real concern is Napoleon’s success or, you devoutly hope, his failure in Russia – if he goes there. America is so very far away that it’s out of mind. It will remain that way, an imaginary land, a perpetual option if the chips go so far down they burn to ash. Yes, it will remain that way for a long time, even when it frantically seeks our attention, which almost anywhere else warrants for very little or even no reason at all.. We’ve sent those rebel colonists to Coventry – an idiomatic usage you need to be English to understand fully.
We hear much from Spain these days, for example, but we only listen to whatever concerns us directly, and perhaps a little indirectly too. Wellington is taking advantage of Napoleon’s Russian distraction to defeat the French in several battles, including one at Vittorio, after which our victor enters Spain. But Wellington and Spain invoke painful memories of little Eduard, dead and gone. Taking advantage of this Iberian distraction, perhaps, the colonies of Spanish America have all declared their independence by now, and Spain’s once immeasurable, grand and exceedingly wealthy empire all but vanishes. Poof! The Empire Entropy. But Vincy’s information has puzzled Edward. It’s so detailed that his source must surely be one of Napoleon’s generals – neither Talleyrand nor Fouchet accompanied him to Dresden. Is it Murat, his brother-in-law, now the King of Naples? Is it Eugene, his stepson, now also his adopted son, Rose’s boy, now Viceroy of Italy? It could have been Bernadotte, the only one to oppose Napoleon’s first-consulship; but he’s now presumably preoccupied as Crown Prince of Sweden. In a season of uncertainty this is but one more unanswered question. Toss it onto the pile of other questionss, shrug and move on.
Perhaps to assuage the grief over young Eduard’s death in his own idiosyncratic way, Edward develops an obsessive interest in Napoleon, collecting scraps of information from numerous sources, pasting them into commonplace books, acquiring and reading whatever else exists, corresponding with men who have known, or even just encountered the emperor, consulting academic experts in warfare and military history, and even hiring the services of “Romany Rosalea’, a gypsy fortune teller, tarot reader and crystal gazer, whose cozy smoke-filled caravan is parked on Ealing Common, where her colossal meaty Clydesdale carthorse takes his leisurely lunch on Thursdays and Fridays. Edward is not gullible, but he is susceptible to the mystical once he’s convinced it’s potentially authentic. And he finds Romany Rosalea almost too authentic, her divinations of an accuracy uncanny in its exactitude, and more useful than anything else he’s come across or collected.
‘Right, dearie,’ says Rosalea, ‘here it be.’ She hands him the horoscope she’s drawn up from information he’d given her the previous week.
‘I’m afraid it doesn’t mean much to me, Madame,’ he tells her, staring down at the maze of circles, lines, squares, degrees and vectors meticulously drawn in coloured inks on fine parchment. He has not told her whose horoscope it is, and of course she has no idea who he is, in his civilian clothes, the grey frock coat, the trousers that strap under his boots, the gleaming pink dome as he removes his silk hat, and the effusive side whiskers, a little too black to be genuinely this dark.
‘Course it don’t, dearie,’ says the gypsy, taking back the page. ‘That’s me job, innit? Horoscopus, dearie – know what it means?’
‘I do not. I’m sorry.’ And he is genuinely sorry.
‘Nah-nah, don’t be, dearie,’ says Rosalea. ‘Life’s a taddie too short for sorrowing. Iss Slatin, I means Latin, for “Oi watch the ‘mergin’ planets”. Do y’unnerstand what I say, dearie?’
‘Yes. I think so.’
‘Now ‘old me ‘and, dearie, whoile Oi conseetrates on the fibrillations, Izzat awright, dearie?’
‘Yes of course.’ He feels his huge strong paw gripped by what could well be a clamp made of bone covered in dessicated chamois leather. It is unexpectedly firm, but dry as as an old box of chalk. He has a question: ‘Did you say ‘fibrillations’?’ he says, looking around at the charming little room on wheels, its small wood stove, flower-embroidered clean curtains, the yard-wide pallet of a bed, the shelves with all their curios and knickknacks, each protected from breakage by a removable wooden arm, and then of course the small square folding table at which they now sit on joint-stools, her pale avian hand on his great ruddy paw, a crystal ball next to them, rearranging the caravan and its occupants into forms better suited to existence inside a glass dome the size of a tennis ball. A clock ticks patiently; the page whispers beneath the fingers of her other hand as they trace its quadrants and elipses for something felt rather than seen.
The gypsy looks up suddenly, black eyes like the polished barrels of a gun whose ammunition is in the brain. ‘Sssh, derie,’ she says softy. ‘Oi’s conseetratin’, izzunt Oi?’ A lengthy pause. He hears her breath, her metabolic processes at work, presumably on her breakfast; and always the whispering swish of that finger assessing the geometric arteries of fate lines, planetary conjunctions, transits, and the whole network of a destiny belonging to the man who was now Master of Europe, but would not stop there. Rosalea would not stop there either. Her interpretation of the horoscope comes in a verbal torrent so swift and seamless there is no possibility of halting it or seeking to ask a query. ‘August fifteen,’ she states, also noting place and time of birth – information Julie wheedled out of Rose. ‘Sun in Leo,’ she continues. ‘Moon in Capricorn – issa man’s chart, Oi can always tell. Oh. Hmm. With that moon where it be, he’s driven – oh, wery driven, an’ monstrous ambitious wivit too. Oh. Very strong chart. His Mars is in Virgo, right there, so he’ll certain be wery good with details – you knows details, dearie? – good you, an’ wery good with ‘em he. But awlso wery secretive. He’s not a man to trust many around him – if any!’ At this point she smakcked the table and rolled back her eyes, but the disturbance hardly interrupts her flow at all. ‘Ah, loverly,’ she says in a floral voice of considerable charm, ‘His Venus is in Cancer, so he’s got a wery soft heart, he has… a wery romantic heart too. Ooh, he will have an eye for the ladies, dearie. Oh, and that eye might not be aversed to casting a glance at the boys too. Does you know what I means, dearie? Good. Oi could see you izza man o’ the whirled. Now… we have a Mercury conjunct mid-heaven. Powerful. He will be what you mights call kingly by nature, wery at home ‘mongst the royals an’ the wristocrats, he be. A leader too. Oh, men will certain follow him awright. He may even be a royal hisself, but Oi don’t see it at the birth point. Strange, dearie, ‘cause it’s there, right here’ – she pokes at a point on the chart – ‘See? His royal filations started a wee taddie later. Odd that. Hmm. Ah-hmm. Oh. You gotta Mars conjunct four degrees with Neptune here. No good, dearie. His fine qualities are counterested by a disruptiveness. Y’see, dearie, iss like he builds up nice an’ fine; but then he has the inclinatering to tear it all down. Hmm. This conjunct. Wery bad temper. You doesn’t want to be anywhere near him when the temper be breakin’ out from its cage, no, you duzzant. Four degrees. Neptune? He probly has what Oi calls a differcult relationship wiv water. D’y’understand me, dearie? I duzzant mean washin’ water or drinkin’ water. I means the great waters, the seas, oceans, ribbers, lakes – unnstand me dearie?’
He gets a word in. ‘I do indeed,’ he says, and indeed he does, recalling Vincy’s earlier letter about Napoleon’s hatred of water, ships, boats and anything else that floated – including his own useless navy.
There were many more astrological phenomena, most of them denoting traits too subtle or personal for Edward to tell if they fitted Napoleon. But when Romany Rosalea summed up the horoscope that she’d spent ninety minutes analyzing, it was a portrait of the emperor, complete with little details she couldn’t possibly have known about, even if she had guessed whose chart it was from the birthday and the place, Corsica. He thinks this is highly unlikely. Besides, there were some things she divined in the chart that hardly anyone in the world knew about. Presumably Rose did not write to all and sundry of the disappointingly miniature dimensions of Bonaparte’s genetalia. By concentrating deeply on what Edward saw as a series of infinitely subtle interrelationships, like the notes on sheet music, the gypsy had weighed multiple choices before being certain that the effect of this on that at such and such in the sign of the scorpion, five, six, seven degrees would indicate a strong proclivity for/strong aversion to/instinctive understanding of/power attraction to… And one of these little details, by no means a certainty, was “a strong likelihood of genital malformation”, which could sometimes “lead to insecurities about his maniless”, this in turn sometimes causing “an overcompensation in the form of bullying or aggression”. Rosalea had ended up with a military leader, fiercely ambitious, driven, ruthless, obsessed with details, secretive, making up for what he felt he lacked in stature and manliness by behaving like a seven-foot-tall potentate, this impression the one taken away by men drawn to his innate skills as a leader, which, she said, had dangerous qualities in them; and behind it all a passionate, romantic man, whose soft heart was easily touched by the plight of the poor or outcast, and helplessly drawn to women who possessed almost the opposite qualities to his own. There was, furthermore, the hint of homosexual tendencies, and a nervous complaint. Like epilepsy. She actually said “epilepsy, Edward tells himself, always impressed by the mystics he meets, but never more so than he is by Romany Rosalea.
It is now not long before he believes he knows the man Napoleon as well, if not better than anyone close to him. The Duke of Kent still fantacizes commanding an army against the emperor, and winning those battles, thanks to this obsessive need for understanding the man. Of course, he knows this will never be now, but everyone needs a little dream to decorate the future when the future looks drab, don’t they? It has also not escaped his ninble watchmaker’s mind that he, Prince Edward, shares a good number of the same qualities revealed by that horoscope. Not the very bad ones, mercifully, or so he hopes. But certainly he has the drive, the ambition, the details, the leadership, and the “wery” soft heart, which is attracted to someone who is every bit his equal but entirely different in nature. It does cross his heated mind to have the gypsy draw up his own chart; but he pulls back from that brink by reminding himself that you really don’t want to know what your future holds. You also don’t want to be told you’re probably a homosexual, with violent tendencies, and as likely to smash anything down as you are to build it up.
‘But at least I enjoy the water and ships,’ he tells Julie, after a highly truncated precis of his experiences with the gypsy.
‘Yes,’ she says, her voice so neutral that you wonder if it’s a foreign language, ‘but you haven’t conquered half of Europe and become wealthier than Croesus, have you?’ A pause that necessitates the wrinkling up of her nose, something he’s come to regard as a “tell”, the harbinger of bad tidings. ‘No,’ she proceeds, as if answering an unheard question, ‘no, you haven’t. But you have racked up an astounding level of debt for someone – and that includes me – who owns nothing except a private public library and a fucking’ – she’s speaking French but this is the English word, presumably so he notices it, which he does – ‘a fucking ludicrously excessive collection… Oh, you can’t call it that. It’s a concatenatenation – is that the word? – a fucking ludicrously excessive concatenation of clockwork shit in gold and jewels, shit that I happen to know you paid a fortune for but now can’t even give away to pay off debts you’ll never pay off, because all you do with the unconscionably immense amounts of time on your frighteningly huge paws is incur more debts to finance this hare-brained scheme and that example of raving balderdash or those two spongers you imagine are friends. Jesu Christ almighty!’ She needs to pause for breath, but not for long. ‘Well, Highness – hah, you must be the lowest highness on record – is it sort of analogous to the conquest of Europe? You’re what? Twice Napoleon’s height, is it? Born with a head in the clouds – the ones with no lining except bloody rain – that’s you. But he’s still ten times the man you are! A hundred times!’ Tears are surely about to creep out from their well. ‘No,’ she now yells, ‘I’m not going to cry – I’m not! Squander, squander, squander. That’s you! With never a thought for our child you killed, the three boys you sent off to death. Borrow for this, borrow for that… Oh, and borrow to buy that crazy German slut some vile and tasteless little trinket you saw in those big, blue, bloodshot eyes of hers… Or was it up that fetid crack she’s got? How, how, how…’
He cannot let this go on, going over to hold her by the shoulders and say, ‘What, my love? What’s been going on?’
She looks up, confused, uncertain herself what is wrong with her. All she can do is shake her head.
But he knows. He also knows there’s nothing he can do to make things right again. You break some things and they’re easily repaired. You break other things and they’re gone forever. Poof! All the King’s horseguards and most of his men can never put those things back together again. Yet one man will try his best.