This is the first chapter of the sequel to My Particular Friend. The chapter is titled The Affair of the Putative Prince and the title of the book is Our Mutual Friends. I offer this as a goad to myself to keep writing.
‘Please shoot him, Jane,’ Charlotte said, ‘but have a care with your aim.’
Per her instructions, I had manoeuvred behind the young man who was the object of our scrutiny. I could see Charlotte safely to one side and her countenance and posture did not betray her deadly instructions. She seemed entirely focussed on him, favouring the putative prince with the smile she normally reserved for distraught mothers. Or perhaps her smile was meant to reassure me.
I reached into the muff I carried—a curious affectation for such a warm day—and gripped the object she had earlier supplied me. I pulled back the cock—I only felt, not heard the click of the mechanism—took out the pistol and levelled my arm at full length, as if to fire. A quick shake of Charlotte’s head, however, informed me that her ploy had not worked.
The young man, however, noticed my friend’s attention and turned to look at me, but I had already returned the weapon to the interior of the muff. He looked at me with his curious, childlike expression and offered me a smile, which I immediately returned. How could I help it? Even with the knowledge that Charlotte considered him an impostor, I was charmed by his warm brown eyes, his long, black hair that fell upon his shoulders and his full lips that spoke the curious sing-song language that had so confounded the greatest minds in England. Were I completely honest, I would also admit that my eyes were drawn to his broad chest, naked but for a sort of soft-leather vest with no buttons.
‘I am convinced, sir, that you are a fraud, but I commend you for being an accomplished one,’ Charlotte said. Her voice commanded his attention from me to her. He turned quickly and as his hair flew about him, I saw the many small braids and feathers woven among his locks. Combined with his wild costume and the large medallion he wore, he was an exotic figure at this fashionable Mayfair address.
He babbled more words of his foreign tongue, none of which I comprehended, but there was an unmistakable question in what he said.
‘Can you not take a record of his words, Jane?’ Charlotte asked with her petulant tone — a tone that caught the attention of the young man. ‘I am certain there is an underlying structure to his utterances.’
‘How can I even begin? I have no idea how to … how to reproduce his words on paper.’ I felt some embarrassment at my admission, for I had begun to take some pride as the recorder of our little adventures and Charlotte had even had occasion to refer to my writings. However, even the august minds of the Royal Society had failed in reliably recording the young man’s speech. Every attempt at transcription had resulted in hotly contested results.
‘Tchah! It should be a simple matter …’ But Charlotte’s comment was interrupted by the door to the drawing-room being opened.
‘What are you doing here?’ demanded Sir Lionel Humphrey. The baronet walked quickly to Prince Nanaboo and laid his hand upon the prince’s shoulder, an action that caused Charlotte to raise an eyebrow. The prince was not discomfited by Sir Lionel’s attention, however, and even laid his own hand upon the hand of his protector and benefactor.
‘Who are you?’
His peremptory tone caused Charlotte to straighten. She lost that complacent smile that she had been directing to the prince and replied, ‘Why I am your guest, Sir Lionel. My brother, Mr Michael House, should have apprised you of our intended visit.’
The mention of her brother had the desired effect.
‘Oh, then you are Miss House,’ he said, his tone now conciliatory.
‘And this is my friend, Miss Jane Woodsen. I apologize for our being closeted with the prince. We must have lost ourselves in the splendours of your magnificent home.’
‘Er, yes, no doubt,’ he replied. He had the courtesy, at least, of accepting Charlotte’s transparent lie. ‘I should formally introduce you to his majesty.’
Charlotte nodded and waited for Sir Lionel to compose himself, understandably confused at how to recover from the distressing collapse of protocol.
Charlotte’s brother had informed her that he thought ‘Prince Nanaboo’ a fiction, an opinion Charlotte shared. But many found the story of the prince’s discovery on the docks a thrilling story of parental defiance, piracy and true love and had embraced his status as a cause célèbre. Still others in government found him a thorn in the side of British foreign policy, not sure whether to take his side and openly confront those great powers whose aid in the war with France were vital.
‘Your royal highness, may it please you for me to present these … charming ladies, Miss Charlotte House …’ He paused for Charlotte to curtsey, who may have bent her knee more than was warranted for a foreign potentate. Sir Lionel then looked at me, blankly, and added, ‘And a Miss …’
I supplied my name and curtseyed, not as deeply for I feared I would fall.
‘Miss Jane Woodsen,’ he repeated. ‘This is His Royal Highness, Prince Nanaboo of Samokar.’
We both waited, unsure if further honorifics were to be added, before we both murmured, ‘Your Royal Highness,’ and curtseyed again.
Prince Nanaboo addressed us in suitably regal manner, his sing-song words either babbling nonsense or a princely welcome. His tone seemed to show no upset at our unceremonious entrance.
I was surprised to hear Charlotte say, ‘Oh that is too kind of you, sir. And please forgive us for entering the room unannounced. We had heard of the magnificence of Sir Lionel’s home and could not resist a look.’
‘You understand his speech!’ Sir Lionel said with considerable surprise.
‘Only a little. It is a little like Telugu, spoken in Andrah Pradesh. I know a few words from my uncle. I fear I cannot speak it with my clumsy tongue.’
It was obvious from Sir Lionel’s reaction that Charlotte’s knowledge disconcerted him. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but his attention was diverted by an utterance from the prince. Once the baronet turned away, Charlotte gave me a look that I had difficulty interpreting. Her head nodded toward the prince.
‘Pray, what does he say?’ I asked of Sir Lionel. I saw Charlotte smile.
‘Er…um…my command of his language is rudimentary,’ Sir Lionel said to me, and then with a quick look to Charlotte said to her, ‘I have learned to understand him, a little. My servant has acted as the prince’s interpreter.’ Sir Lionel returned his attention to me. ‘I think the prince said you should not be ashamed of your intrusion.’
‘Or words to that effect,’ Charlotte said, ‘not quite in that tone, however.’
The prince uttered a few more words of his language, with a clear interrogative tone.
The corner of Charlotte’s mouth twitched in a smile. ‘Oh, I believe I understood that as well,’ she said. ‘He graciously invited us to sit. How kind of you, sir.’ Charlotte accompanied her remarks with a broad smile and many nods of her head and an exaggerated gesture to one of the chairs.
The prince smiled back and returned the nods and mimicked her gesture to sit. Sir Lionel looked quite confused.
‘A beautiful language, so mellifluous,’ Charlotte answered. We took our seats after the prince sat, except for Sir Lionel who still stood, displaying uncertainty. Then he walked to the bell-pull, returned and took his seat.
‘May I ask what you and the prince were discussing before I arrived?’ he asked.
Charlotte said nothing in response and I noticed that her gaze was locked with that of the prince.
‘Oh, merely our embarrassment that we had come upon him unannounced,’ I said for my friend. ‘But he was most gracious. Of course we … I did not understand a word, but his manner conveyed much.’
Further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of a footman. Sir Lionel took the young man aside and we heard an unsubtle rebuke by the baronet that we had been allowed into the drawing-room. The footman unwisely attempted to defend himself and Sir Lionel unwisely raised his voice still further. He then sent the footman away after issuing an order that tea be served.
‘I am sorry; his royal highness has suffered much and it is unconscionable that someone should barge … I mean that proper decorum not be observed.’
‘Quite right, but please do not blame your footman. He was called away,’ Charlotte said to the baronet. She did not look away from the prince, however. She seemed in silent communion with the young man.
I felt a pang of guilt for it was of course Charlotte’s machinations that had drawn the footman away. An ill-timed delivery and a mob of unruly children descending into the kitchen below us had necessitated his leaving and allowed us the few moments alone with the prince.
‘I am sorry, sir, if our visit is inappropriate. We merely wish to welcome you to our country and offer our support … that is what little support we mere women might offer you. The story of your escape has captivated society.’
The prince seemed puzzled and looked to Sir Lionel for elucidation, who was clearly at a loss how he might interpret my friend’s words. The arrival of the tea, however, saved him. With no other women present, it fell to us to serve the tea. I remembered that Sir Lionel was widowed but still it seemed odd that neither the housekeeper nor a parlour maid attended us. Sir Lionel certainly made no move to act as host.
Charlotte handed a cup to the prince who made a show of unfamiliarity at our custom of taking tea. He was not so adept at handling the plates of a simple cream tea and he looked to us with a very charming look of helplessness that caused me to laugh. He responded with his own laugh, which again was light and musical.
Our repast was quickly completed. Sir Lionel made that little clearing of the throat that usually precedes a suggestion that a visit is at an end, but Charlotte made the suggestion first.
‘We presume too much on the prince’s time, Jane. Sir Lionel, thank you for your hospitality and for championing the prince’s cause.’ She then looked to the prince. ‘Sir, I hope that we meet again and thank you for you condescension.’
The prince seemed to understand that our visit was to end and stood, which allowed us to stand. He stood before Charlotte and offered his hand. Charlotte extended her hand, which he took, bowing low over it but with his eyes fixed on her. Not a hint of a smile graced either of their features.
He offered the same courtesy to me, but with the favour of a sweet smile that I returned. In contrast, our leave taking of Sir Lionel consisted of a quick nod and curtsey. We made to leave the room but as the footman, anticipating our departure, opened the door, the prince again addressed us, no doubt adding an additional farewell.
Charlotte turned and repeated the prince’s words, to my ears flawlessly. The prince flashed the smile that had been missing before and Charlotte responded as well.
‘What an adversary!’ Charlotte said, once we were in our carriage.
‘Of course not, Jane. The prince! Well, we may as well call him that until we know the truth of it.’ She said this while holding her hand to her nose and I heard her breathe in loudly. ‘What is it? I know that…ah, of course, coconut.’
My eyes widened at her nonsensical remarks, but by now I had some experience and merely asked, ‘You remain convinced his story is a lie?’
The corner of her mouth twitched again, a truer sign of her enjoyment than her broad smile. ‘For a prince, his hand shows remarkable calluses, especially those that a bight of rope might cause. He has gone to considerable pains to soften his hands, but the hallmarks of a lifetime at sea are not so easily disguised.’
‘Perhaps the pirates had put him to work,’ I suggested.
‘Not for the space of five or more years,’ she said. She remained silent for almost a minute before adding, ‘I really must thank Michael for asking me my opinion. I did not think our time would be so profitably spent immediately upon our arrival.’
Neither did I. Our arrival in London was met by a message from Charlotte’s brother, asking her to visit him. Our mutual friend, Mrs Fitzhugh, and I were very tired after the trip but Charlotte maintained that energy that sustained her while travelling from Bath. I had had to endure Charlotte’s constant observations and surmises about every person we met on our journey: ‘It is unfortunate his wife no longer loves him,’ or ‘She has decided upon the blue dress but how she resents the cost.’
This was only our second day in London and I remained exhausted.
‘The problems London presents certainly offer a larger canvas for my talents,’ she said. She said this last to herself. If she had not said ‘our’ in her previous sentence, I would think her completely unaware of my presence.
I realized that our short ride to our own home was our first opportunity for private conservation, and I desperately wanted to ask Charlotte of the revelation she had offered upon our leaving Bath. But her comment intrigued me.
‘Do the concerns of mothers for their daughter’s hopes of marriage pale in significance here?’
‘What? Oh, I am sorry Jane. Of course that is my concern as well, but a little variety is not unwelcome. What did you think of the prince? Did he charm you as well?’
To one unfamiliar with her, her tone might have sounded a little arch, but I paid it no mind.
‘He is very charming and very handsome and seeing him I could not imagine him as an impostor. I also sense an intelligence and humour in him.’
‘Ah, there you show your ability, Jane. You often fail to see the readily apparent, but you never fail to see the innate.’
I took this as a compliment and thought it might be an opportunity to discuss …
But Charlotte interrupted my thought: ‘I promise to speak of it, Jane, but please leave it a matter of my own time and choosing.’
We arrived at our home in Grosvenor Square shortly after. I admit I was angry and I made no effort to conceal it. Directly the carriage arrived I opened the door myself and descended, the footman whose name I did not remember hurrying to help me down. I ignored the man’s outstretched hand and walked up the few steps, hurrying past Mrs Fitzhugh who had just descended from above. I ran up the stairs to my room, opened the door and slammed it shut.
Insufferable woman! I thought to myself. She knew all along what I was thinking and then cut me when I was about to ask — very understandably — about the revelation she had disclosed, that she had had a child, presumably without the benefit of marriage.
I sat on the edge of my bed, shedding my spenser, when I heard a knock on the door.
‘Come in. Margaret,’ I said with a frustrated sigh. I knew my friend had come to console me but at the moment I wanted to enjoy my anger.
‘Jane?’ she asked. ‘Oh, what has she done now?’ Her expression showed her weariness. We were both still fatigued from the trip and to a large degree our weariness had much to do with Charlotte’s company for several days. Charlotte’s energy had the effect of dissipating the energy of others.
‘It’s what she will not do. She will not …’ I paused for I had not yet had a chance to tell her that I knew of Charlotte’s child. I paused because the matter had been told to me in confidence and I knew not whether I could divulge it. I paused because I knew that Mrs Fitzhugh must know all of Charlotte’s secrets, for she had been her governess and no doubt privy to all Charlotte’s confidences. I paused because the admission was so awful.
‘She told me something … something of her past.’ She sat down on the bed beside and grasped my hand. I continued: ‘And now she refuses to … acknowledge it.’
‘When did she tell you this?’
‘The day we left Bath, almost the minute of our leaving.’
‘What did she reveal?’
‘I … I do not know if I should say. If I tell you and you are not already aware of it, it would be unforgivable.’
‘There is little about Charlotte I do not know,’ she said.
‘I know, but … if you could guess what it is that I know, then I could confirm it.’
‘Oh, Jane, I would be happy to do so, but I fear I know so many secrets about Charlotte that I could not be certain which she has revealed to you.’
‘That … woman,’ I said. ‘This is a game to her.’
‘No, Jane, it’s not, not if I think I know what she said to you. I think … I think she allowed you to see something of herself of which she is ashamed. She would take it back if she could, but knows that is too late. You might find this hard to believe, but she lacks the courage to tell you more. Now dry your tears and come downstairs when you are able.’
‘But I am not crying.’
‘Of course you are.’ She stood to leave and walked to the door. ‘I will talk to Charlotte and urge her to fully take you into her confidence.’
She left and I remained on the bed, feeling a little better. I brought my hands to my face and felt the tears she had observed and realized I had been crying.