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Authors: Stephanie Barron

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Traditional, #Traditional British, #Fiction

A Flaw in the Blood

BOOK: A Flaw in the Blood
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Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Prince Albert's Descent

Prologue

London

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

The Continent

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

Afterword

About the Author

Also by Stephanie Barron

Copyright

Dedicated to the strongest women I know—
Jo, Pat, Liz, and Cathy.

Love you.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I have long been seduced by the possibilities of the past: the secrets buried there, the personalities lost to time. The support of an editor equally bewitched by these things is of immeasurable importance, and I am grateful for the keen mind and exacting standards of Kate Miciak, Executive Editor, Bantam Books. Kate is the sort of person who will devour an entire library of reference works merely to edit a manuscript, and our conversations about Victoria's life and world shaped this book.

Thanks are also due to my copyeditor at Bantam, Lorie Young, whose thoroughness and patience are endless; and to Molly Boyle, assistant editor, who ensured that every
i
was dotted and every
t
crossed. Sharon Propson shepherds my work through the slings and arrows of publicity's fortune, and I am grateful for her unquenchable enthusiasm.

Rafe Sagalyn, of the Sagalyn Literary Agency, has borne with me for more than fourteen years. Rafe and his dedicated team make it possible for me to write—and for that, I owe them the world.

My family endured endless lectures on sewer systems, nineteenth-century prostitution, medical ignorance, and the state of the Irish in Victorian England—without committing periodic acts of violence or moving out. Thanks, Mark, for putting up with the madwoman in the attic; and to Sam and Steve, for loving words as much as I do.

PROLOGUE

Coburg, 1 October 1860

W
HEN THE AGONY OF THE STATE
dinner was over and his wife was preoccupied with the other women, he ceased to talk quite so feverishly before the crowd of people who'd come to the Rosenau to see them. He knew his bright chatter had fooled nobody. They were all frightened by his brush with death. The telegrams had been pouring in all day, from Paris and London and North America. He'd fallen when he'd jumped from the runaway carriage and his nose and chin were bruised. The others ignored his bandages, just as they ignored his near-hysteria, his desperate grasping at normalcy.

He abandoned his brother and the others as soon as he decently could and avoided the noise of the grand saloon altogether, taking a side passage away from the public rooms toward the rear of the palace. He had grown up in the Rosenau and he loved it better than any place on earth; it was here he'd been happiest, despite his father's rages and his brother's reckless pursuit of pleasure, the serving maids thrust up against the ancient walls, their skirts fanning around Ernest's thighs. Ernest was the duke now, and the old people were buried with their secrets; he, Albert, was forty-one and king of England in all but name.

He mounted a back staircase and without hesitation made for the nursery wing. The noise of the chosen world receding behind him.

As he hurried along the corridor, a phrase recurred in his jangling brain:
Mein letztes Stündlein gekommen wäre. My last hour had come.
He would write it to his daughter, Vicky, who'd already gone back to Berlin and thus would have been spared the horror of his death; it was what he'd felt overwhelmingly as the carriage swayed toward the railroad crossing, the horses maddened by his whip. Death waited beyond the crossing bar.

At the schoolroom door he hesitated. There was no fire in the grate, but a single candle burned in a sconce on the far wall. Too late to step back or move on; too late to pretend, as he had for most of his life, to be someone else. A dim silhouette in candlelight; the man turned.

“My dear boy. I thought you might come.”

Stockmar; of course it was Stockmar. Of all the teachers in Albert's life, he was the least official and the most trusted. The baron was seventy, now, and refused to travel to England even for Albert; but if any man was responsible for the Consort's fate, it was he.

Albert slumped down in one of the hard schoolroom chairs and waited.

“You've had a narrow escape.”

“Yes.”

The old man shuffled to the door, closed it with a palsied hand. “You know what they're saying? Not to your face, of course—but in the back rooms and alleyways of Coburg?
How could as fine a whip as the Consort lose control of his horses?”

“Perhaps I'm less of a whip than they thought.”

“That's what we'll tell them, of course.” Stockmar nodded. “We'll put it down to too many years in England, where nobody at all understands horseflesh. Even a lie as implausible as that is preferable to admitting suicide.”

Albert said nothing. He gingerly touched the bandages on his nose. Stockmar sank heavily into another chair. The two of them faced each other as they had thirty years ago, when the subjects at issue were also duty and character.

“Well? Are you going to tell me about it? Or do you want the old man to go away and leave you alone with your demons?”

Albert shrugged. “What is there to tell? I had a stupid accident. I'm thankful to be alive.”

“I've never known you to drive four-in-hand without so much as a groom up behind you. That's another thing people will talk about.
Why did he go out alone?”

“Precisely to
be
alone! And I don't give a damn what people say!”

The outburst was uncharacteristic; Albert was never uncontrolled. He cultivated self-restraint the way other men pursued God. Stockmar raised one eyebrow and sat stiffly, arms folded.

“There was . . . a waggon at the crossing bar,” the younger man relented. “A farmer, waiting for the train to go by. I couldn't avoid hitting him, so—”

“—So you jumped, rather than kill the man outright. That's like your kindness. Even in the depths of despair you'd think of the poor fool you might take with you. Jump, and the horses would be bound to veer off. But it must have been disappointing, all the same. You were so close, weren't you? The train. The impact. The blessed release.”

He was right; as always, Stockmar was right—and Albert felt himself sway with sudden dizziness and relief, as he had when some childhood peccadillo was discovered and all that remained was atonement. He had wanted death. He had gone out that morning hunting for it. And the bitterness as he plummeted through the air, the impact of the ground, had been as brutal as a public flogging.
Disappointment
didn't even begin to describe it.

He rose and paced before the cold hearth. “Christian, what am I to do?”

“Consider the farmer and his waggon to be signs from Providence,” Stockmar suggested. “—Who, in Its infinite wisdom, prefers you alive to burning in Hell.”

“And if I already burn, here on earth?”

“Endure it for your wife's sake. And that of England. They both need you.”

“My wife!” Albert barked with sudden laughter. “Victoria!”

“You've always loved her.” Stockmar stared at him, the beginning of a frown creasing his brow. “My dear boy—what has broken your heart so completely?”

Albert turned. “That Hell you spoke of, old friend. It comes to men like me in the form of a paradox: the lie you cannot accept, versus the truth you cannot utter. In that kind of world, Death is the only honourable choice.”

“I was wrong,” Stockmar said. “You
have
been in England too long.”

Albert drew his chair close to the baron's ear. He began to talk. And late into the Coburg night, Stockmar listened.

PART ONE

London

CHAPTER ONE

14 December, 1861

T
HE CARRIAGE MADE LITTLE SOUND
as it rolled beneath the iron portcullis of Windsor; the harness and wheels were wrapped in flannel, the paving stones three inches deep in sawdust. But its arrival fell upon the place like an armed attack, shaking the ostlers out of their torpor. They sprang to the horses' heads before the equipage had even pulled to a halt, as though Patrick Fitzgerald brought tidings of war.

Fitzgerald made no move to step down into the sawdust. His hands were thrust in his coat pockets for warmth, his eyes fixed on the flaming torches and silent men beyond the carriage window. Once before, he had been to the great stone pile west of London—summoned, as tonight, by the woman who ruled there. But he was thinking less of the Queen now than of the man who lay in her private apartments, shuddering with fever.

“Let me come with you.” Georgiana's gloved hand—that supple hand, so deft with the knife blade—reached for him. “I want to come with you.”

“No.”

Darkness filled the carriage. Only the gleam of her eyes suggested a presence; she had drawn the hood of her cloak close about her face, like a thief.

“It may have nothing to do with you, Georgiana. You cannot always presume—”

“And what if
I
have something to do with
it
?” she interrupted. “With
him
?”

“Georgie—”

But she'd turned her head away, her profile outlined against the squabs. She was biting down hard on her anger, as though it were a haft of iron between her teeth.

“And she'd never let you near him,” he attempted. “You must know that.”

“Then she's a fool!”

The coachman stumbled as he jumped from the box; the noise reverberated against the chilled stone like a gunshot, and the ostlers stared in outrage.
Silence in the Old Quadrangle, in respect of the dying.
Fitzgerald caught the coachman's indrawn hiss of breath, ripe with fear, as he pulled open the door.

“Wait,” he told Georgiana. “I shan't be long.”

She didn't attempt to argue. She would be freezing soon, he thought, despite her layers of petticoats. But Georgie would never ask for a hot brick, a brazier of coals. Her pride would kill her one day.

A footman led him into Windsor by the lower entrance, and there, too, the stone floor was blanketed with sawdust. The castle was known for its menacing silence—the vast, carpeted halls absorbed every footfall, and its people trafficked in whispers. Fitzgerald neither spoke nor offered his hand to the man who awaited him—William Jenner, court physician and eminent man of science.

“You took your time,” the doctor snapped.

Fitzgerald handed his gloves and hat to the footman before replying. “I was in Dublin but two days since.”

“And you stink to high heaven of strong spirits.”

“Would you have had me miss my dinner, then? I only received your summons at five o'clock.”

“It is nearly ten! As I say—you took your time.” Jenner's eyes were small and close-set, his jowls turned down in perpetual disappointment. He surveyed the Irishman's careless dress, his unkempt hair, with disfavour. “It may be that she will not receive you, now.”

“I didn't ask for the audience.” Fitzgerald shrugged indifferently. “Is it so necessary?”

“I would not thwart her smallest wish at such an hour! I fear too much for her reason.”

“And your patient? How is he?”

“Typhoid.”

Jenner had made his reputation, years ago, by distinguishing typhoid fever from its close relative, typhus. The physician was the acknowledged expert in the thing that was now killing Prince Albert.

“The Prince will rally,” Jenner said.

From the vehemence of the doctor's words, Fitzgerald concluded that there was no hope.

He followed Jenner up a broad staircase. Through shadowy passages and paneled doors. The final hallway was remarkable for its dimness; oil lamps burned low. A pair of footmen stood immobile by one chamber. He was led beyond, to the Red Room.

“Wait,” Jenner ordered, and stalked away.

To sit would be forbidden. Indeed, it was a testament to the chaos of this night that Fitzgerald was left alone at all, in such a place—that he should have the freedom of Windsor—and for a wild instant he was tempted to fly back into the passage, to trust in the footmen's trained invisibility, to roam at will over the seat of British power and take from it such tokens as he chose. But Patrick Fitzgerald was not quite the savage young man he'd been on his first visit more than twenty years ago. He was six-and-forty years now and had earned a dubious reputation at the Bar. His views were Liberal and his opinions on the Irish Question—the eternal Irish Question—sometimes surfaced in the London papers. For an instant, Georgie's eyes rose before his mind and he wished with all his heart and soul that he was still raw, still young, still braced with hope. Then the rustle of silk proclaimed her coming.

“Your Majesty.” He went down on one knee.

“Mr. Fitzgerald.”

She had taken up a position behind the sopha. The plump white hands grasped the wooden frame; had her grip been less fierce, the fingers might have trembled. She was a short woman of forty-two, with sagging cheeks and a mass of dark hair dragging at her temples; but once she had been a dab of a girl—a joyous girl, tricked out in silver net and flashing diamonds, her hand coquettish on her husband's arm as he led her into the opera. A bruising rider on her gallops through the park—a passionate performer on the pianoforte. The unkind and malicious said she ate like a glutton. That she was given to odd fits of temper and caprice, like her mad old grandfather. They said a woman was too weak to rule. Fitzgerald knew better. Weakness had never been Victoria's failing.

“I am here at your command.” He chose his words carefully. “Pray inform me how I may serve Your Majesty.”

With a gesture, she bade him rise. “You know of our great trouble? Of the Prince's . . . illness?”

“You have my deepest sympathy.”

A blank expression of terror in her blue eyes; contempt as she looked at him. “We do not
want
your sympathy, Mr. Fitzgerald! Our doctors assure us there is every cause for hope.”

“There must be, while Prince Albert breathes.”

Her gaze slid away from his face. “He
will not
fight it as he ought. He has no tenacity for life. If it were
I—

“Your Majesty should have rallied days since.”

Perhaps she had been speaking only to herself. She flashed a look of pure hatred in his direction, as though he had overstepped some boundary.

“Good God, that we should waste our precious moments in
this
! Mr. Fitzgerald, some two decades ago you inserted yourself in our affairs, on the occasion of an attempt on our life in Green Park. You undertook, during the summer of 1840, to insinuate yourself among those who were not our friends—to purchase scurrilous information—in short, to besmirch the reputation of the Royal Family—with a view to vindicating the wretched creature who would have murdered his Queen.”

She had torn him to shreds in just this way, all those years ago. Then he was an ill-dressed solicitor's clerk, cap crushed in his hands and heart pounding in his chest. And the dupe, Oxford, had waited to be hanged in Newgate Gaol.

“I was a servant of justice, Your Majesty!”

“You were an uncouth lackey of the Irish rabble,” she retorted. “And your late success has not improved you one whit. I know what you are, Patrick Fitzgerald. I know that you have chosen to insert yourself
again
in my affairs—that you will not rest until you have toppled this monarchy!”

Angry heat mounted in his cheeks. “That is a lie!
Yes
—though the Queen herself says it!”

“I would not spare a blackguard such as you one second of notice,” she continued, “were it not for the Angelic Being who lies wasting in the next room! Were it not for the ravings he has uttered—”

She broke off. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly.

“Ravings,” Fitzgerald repeated. “The Prince has . . . wandered, in his fever?”

“Oh, God,” she murmured brokenly. “My reason—
my reason
. . . Do you care nothing that I shall go
mad
?”

She sank heavily against the back of the sopha, her nails raking the silk.

“Majesty . . .” He crossed toward her, afraid she would collapse at his feet—but one upraised arm checked his steps.

“Do not even
think
of touching me.” She said it venomously. “Get Jenner. He will tell you what to do.”

She pulled herself upright. Drew a shuddering breath. And, without glancing again in his direction, left him.

“What is it?” Georgie asked the moment he slid into the forward seat of the coach and the muffled wheels began to turn. “What did she want? What did she ask of you?”

“It doesn't matter.”

“Tell me! I've waited nearly an hour—” Georgie bit her lip. “
Please,
Patrick.”

“I was ordered to sign a bit of paper,” he answered. “Affirming that every fact I discovered, every witness I deposed, every rumour I substantiated in the summer of 1840, was nothing more than a fabrication of my own treacherous Irish mind. And that, having repented of my calumnies, I hereby swear to lead a better life in allegiance to my Crown, so help me God—”

“No!” Georgie gasped. “But that is . . . that is
wicked
! You did not sign it?”

“I threw it on the fire, lass.”

“Why does it matter? Why should she care about that old business? With the Prince so ill?”

“Lord alone knows. Poor thing was half out of her mind, I think.” He glanced at Georgiana—her luminous skin, her eyes filled with intelligence and fatal truth. “She talked of conspiracy. Accused me of trying
again
to topple the monarchy. As though I ever have!”

“There must be some mistake. A misapprehension—”

“The Prince is raving, seemingly. In his fever.”

“And when you refused to recant?”

“Jenner threatened me. Informed me my life has no more purchase than a sparrow's.” Fitzgerald smiled faintly. “If I'd signed, of course, he'd have made me an honourary Englishman.”

Humour for Georgie's sake, but she knew Jenner, and she seized on his significance at once.

“He was there—attending to the Prince? Then it
is
typhoid.” She reached impulsively for the carriage door. “We must go back, Patrick. You know I could prevent the spread of contagion—”

Fitzgerald's heart twisted. All her passion in her beautiful eyes.

“Georgie love,” he said gently as the bells of Windsor began to toll, “the Prince is dead.”

BOOK: A Flaw in the Blood
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