Friday, November 24, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter One

In the Shadow of Her Majesty

D.G. Williams

Chapter One: My First and Second Mistakes

In retrospect, as I reflect upon it, the whole unfortunate affair could have been avoided in precisely three different ways. It is not that I regret it now, certainly not given the way that all eventually resolved both to my benefit and to the benefit of the Crown. It is just that so much that I dearly valued was harmed, and so much that was irreplaceable was lost.

All that was needed, or so it seems now, was that I should have found cause to turn down Stewart’s invitation. One simple choice on my part, another path untaken, yet one more sentence unspoken, and Father would still be alive. My errors that day were threefold, and that knowledge vexes me dreadfully.

First, I could have simply continued with my morning practice. 

“There is a caller at the door, milady,” Jane had said, bowing slightly, when I paused and asked why she was standing silent just outside the entrance to the conservatory. I could have ignored her, as often I will, and she by way of unspoken and mutual understanding will simply withdraw, as she is the best and most intuitive of servants.

She could perceive, undoubtedly, that I was utterly absorbed in my modest efforts at the conquest of the Grande Etude No. 10, which had been consuming me for much of the previous week. Liszt is so maddening, such a merciless and seductive adversary, so filled with the lush romance of Hungarian passion, yet also requiring such a level of technical and physical prowess that I am often left exhausted, my barely adequate hands aching for hours afterwards. I was, that morning, making some progress after nearly forty five minutes, which I am certain Jane could have surmised. Her series, ten point four three, as of her last retrofit, is both pre-loaded with every worthy composer’s music and breathtakingly dextrous, and Jane is capable of providing the most marvelous performances on the pianoforte if called upon to do so.

All that was required of me was that I shut out the clangour of the world and the demands of society, and continue unraveling that one diminuendo, which I could most certainly have done, had I not paused in a moment of exhaustion.

As I stopped to catch my breath, I glanced to the door, where I spied Jane waiting silently, the cold light of the winter morning illuminating the ivory whiteness of her ceramic hands, which were folded primly across her intricately patterned dress. That was my one moment of distraction, barely the length of a breath, after which I could have resumed my strivings. But I did not.

“What is it, my dear Jane,” I said, sounding both winded and mildly peevish, not that such a tone was my intent.

She told me about the messenger, as I have mentioned, and so I asked who might be calling at this hour. “They say the message and knowledge of its sender are for your eyes and ears alone,” Jane continued. This was somewhat unusual, I will admit, intriguing, even. Perhaps that was why I did not say, “I’m afraid I’m unable to receive them, Jane, please do extend my apologies, but the value of diligence in one’s music cannot be overstated.”

I have, in my recollection, done precisely that on occasions too numerous to count, which is in part why regular callers and messengers know to avoid the Wexton-Hughes townhome between the hours of nine and eleven in the antemeridian. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, those that still bothered to call on me knew this. Others have dwindled away in the years since I ceased to be a debutante, as I can be at times rather willfully terrible at fulfilling my obligations to society, a matter which had been of no little concern to Father.

So I did not ignore Jane, and that was my first mistake.

My second mistake was to ask her to invite the messenger in. In purely social terms, this wasn’t an error, but a chosen politeness. One welcomes and greets an unannounced caller of the peerage without question, of course, but the correct manners in the receiving in of messengers of various purposes is still of some dispute. Authoritatively speaking, according to Madame Rebuillant’s Definitive and Updated Codex of the Mannered, one does, unless one doesn’t. While I always understood the purpose of those interminable years of courtesy and protocol tutoring, and excelled in my studies thereof, such vague instructions were so commonplace that one wondered if the whole volume was simply a fantasy the dear Madame Rebuillant had imagined on an lazy afternoon that could have been more profitably spent.

Perhaps I was in a generous mood that morning, given my progress on the Grande Etude, or perhaps it was some momentary vagary of my digestion, but it was to Jane that I said, “Well, that is most peculiar. Let us invite them in. Please do send them up, and I shall receive their message myself.”

Jane gave a perfect curtsy, as she always does. “Yes, milady. Of course, milady,” she said, her voice as pleasing as soft chimes. Then she turned, and receded into the central hallway. I listened to her perfectly measured steps recede, fading to barely a whisper as she descended first one flight and then another of the great staircase at the heart of the townhouse.

From below, her voice sang indeterminate like a far distant bell, and I could hear the message bearer enter. Then the footsteps of the two of them could be heard, matched measure for measure in a pleasing contrapuntality as they ascended to the second floor conservatory where I awaited their arrival.

“Milady,” Jane said, again curtseying properly at the entrance, as the messenger waited to be admitted. “The messenger of whom I spoke is here.”

“He is welcome,” I said, waving him in, and she gestured that he might enter.

He was a venerable, aged messenger, one of such a vintage as to draw notice. Perhaps a series seven, nearly a century old, although the variance between the eights and the sevens is difficult to discern if one can’t observe the rearmost structure of the cranial carapace. Which, as he was facing me, the featureless reflectivity of his mirrored mask showing my own distorted form on its surface, I could not. That said, he was in evidently perfect working order, and his trim and perfectly fitted uniform marked him as a representative of an old and well-established family. The identity of that family was, in point of fact, immediately familiar to me, as the crest emblazoned upon his vest was one that had been impressed into my awareness since I was barely more than a girl.

The raven ascendant and radiant, a stylized and pixelated corvid rising with the golden sun haloing its head as it flew, the single visible eye alight with the same singular glow of Helios that shone behind it. It was the banner of the House MacDougall, Baronet of Annandale, of whom the Honorable Stewart MacDougall has these past two years been my intended.

A message from Stew. Dear, unusual, brilliant Stew. Father and Baronet MacDougall had feared that I might be resistant to our union, even though it was clearly a well-made match, one that would be of benefit to both House MacDougall of Annandale and to the future fortunes of Wexton-Hughes and the Earldom of Montgomery. While MacDougall is not yet of the peerage, they are of impeccable bearing and reputation, and the Honorable Stewart MacDougall has made himself of considerable and notable use to the Crown in his service to the Ministry of Defense, where Father has his position.

Father himself had marveled at Stew’s contributions to the Ministry, which was the genesis of his rapid rise through ranks, and, well understanding that his eldest daughter is not one who endures fools lightly, quietly made the initial overtures to Stewart’s father the Baronet Annandale on my behalf.

I will freely admit that I had been somewhat cold when I entered society, but one can hardly blame me. While many young debutantes revel in the new attention of suitors, I found them, to a man…though “man” seems an overgenerous term for that rabble of manchildren…to be utterly uninteresting. One after another they arrived, an assemblage of young peacocks, crowing and preening and displaying, prattling on like little boys about their wealth and their prospects, as if I gave a fig for any of that.

Stew, however, was cut from a very different mold. His mind and his person are of a subtler measure, one that might be misconstrued by lesser persons as being shy, melancholic, or perhaps even rude. His first visit to me was like the calm cool moonlight of evening, a welcome respite from the brash and self-congratulatory displays of his erstwhile rivals.

Silence, I suppose, was one of his greatest distinctions. Stew would not rush from thought to thought, but would sit and quietly consider his next utterance before speaking it. No filling the air with blather, chattering and chittering like a doyennes’ anxious pet tamarin, but instead being unafraid to be still. His words, when then came, were each finely considered and quietly spoken, with a confidence that comes from having fully considered a matter in all of its aspects.

It is why I found the arrival of his messenger and the veiled character of the call so very perplexing.

The facemask shimmered for a moment, and Stew’s ivory visage appeared on its surface. The wide, deep, dark eyes. The long, fine, delicate nose. The small, pensive mouth. The messenger assumed Stew’s slightly stooped posture, the ferroceramic hands clasping and unclasping in the way that Stew is wont to do.

“Dearest Becca,” it said, in Stew’s soft, measured voice. “My most sincere apologies for the likely hour of this call, as I am aware that you are working most diligently to master the Grande Etude. I and your father the Earl are among the company of guests who shall be attending the winter festival thrown by the Lord Fairfax at his estate tomorrow. It is primarily, for me, a significant bit of Her Majesty's business, for which you know I have been preparing for the last fortnight, and of which I can…of course…not speak of through this messenger. It will come as no surprise to you that I had given the subsequent dance and feasting no thought whatsoever. As you also well know, it is my nature to focus only on the task directly before my eyes, and not on the social obligations that I realize are also mine to fulfill. It was only in speaking with your Father this morning that I realized it was the assumption of all that I would be escorting you to the event. My invitation was for you and I together, and the duty for notifying you of that reality, my own. As is so often my failing, that reality had entirely escaped my mind.”
The messenger peered for a long moment at its feet, slowly shaking its head, mirroring what Stew does so often when both irritated with himself and eager to make amends. It looked up, and then continued.

“This not by way of excusing my gross inattentions, but simply an acknowledgement of my foibles and my deep embarrassment at this oversight. I am most dreadfully sorry to have been so remiss in my duties, and for the tardiness of this invitation. If, at this late date, you find yourself with a prior commitment that you must for the sake of propriety honor, I shall not in any way be offended, as the error here is solely mine.

It is my hope that the hour is not yet too late, and that I and all in attendance might have the pleasure of your company. I am, as always, your friend and humble servant, Stewart.”

The messenger straightened to attention, and both Stewarts’ visage and the affect of Stewart’s physical demeanour vanished from its form

“Is there a reply that I might return to my master, milady?” The mechanical voice, now plain and devoid of all but the most precise expression.

Here, I completed the making of my second error. I could have politely demurred, as again Providence in her kindness offered me an escape from what was to come. I could have conveyed my heartfelt regrets, and it would hardly have been the first time that the peculiar Lady Wexton-Hughes had chosen not to attend an event of significance. Stewart would have managed ably, I’m sure.

But I missed the calm of his presence, as one would miss the lack of nightfall on a sweltering summer’s day. He is not what one might describe as passionate, but I have little need for such a person in my life, despite what my silly little sister Suzanna might suggest.

She can afford to desire such a fiery husband, but she does not bear the weight of the Earldom on her soft, smooth shoulders. Suzanna shall never, God willing, become the Countess Wexton-Hughes. It would destroy her, my dear little sister, in all of her pure and coddled delight. It is not that I covet the title, nor that I desire the status it conveys. It is that her playful heart would be torn apart by the demands of the peerage, whereas I appear to have been granted an affinity for such burdens by my Creator. The responsibility would so quickly weather her bright eyes, and her easy laugh would fail.

Suffice it to say that in that moment, as I reflected on my obligations as a lady and Stewart’s indefatigible support, I could not imagine doing anything other than being by his side.

Yes, I would have to send my regrets to Aunt June, with whom I had scheduled an evening repast in anticipation of Father’s absence. But she is my father’s sister, and an honest and heartfelt apology coupled with a clear articulation of the necessary burden of attending the Duke’s soiree will unquestionably dampen any concern that I was snubbing her. June knows me, and knows my love for her is as great as my love for Father, given how often she has well advised me.

So, ignorant of what was to come, I proceeded to give the House MacDougall messenger my reply.

“Please do convey to the Honorable Stewart MacDougall my answer in the affirmative. I shall make all appropriate and necessary arrangements to attend the event in question.”

“I shall do so, milady. Is there anything further?”

“Yes, if I might be so bold, may I ask you a direct question about your provenance?”

“You may, milady.”

“Are you a Series 8 or a Series 7?”

“Series 7, milady. It has been my pleasure to serve House MacDougall for ninety seven years, four months, and three hours. I have been consistently upgraded over that time, and remain at a high level of functionality.”

“That is most impressive. Your long and competent service is a credit to Her Majesty.”

The Series 7 gave a curt bow. “I desire nothing more than to serve Her Highness and those who honor her, milady.”

It was the proper answer, properly stated. One could expect nothing less.

“I shall take my leave now, milady. Thank you for the grace of your reception, and the clarity of your answer.”

“It was my pleasure. Jane, please see him out.”

The messenger bowed again, turned crisply. He and Jane proceeded towards the great staircase, their steps again in rhythm.

And with their departure, my fate was almost sealed.

Chapter Two:  Informing Suzanna of My Plans