As if it had indeed been loving harmony, she
attended him twenty-four hours a day; expected to do no less. For three months she had never set foot outside the suite of rooms that were his.
His nose had already been eaten away, now he'd begun to rot, new buboes appearing as if maggots had gathered in one squirming subcutaneous mass to try and get out through the skin. Before his brain went, he'd begged absolution from the very walls. Only the priest could give him that; her place had been to diminish his physical suffering as well as she could, and she and laudanum had done itâas much as it could be done.
She'd thought she could watch judgementally the revenge inflicted on his body by the life he'd led, but she had been unable to resist pity, longing for him to die, for his own sake. Her thankfulness at his last breath had been more for his release than hers. Then had come the scurry of funeral arrangements.
And now to find, after years of expectation of freedom, that Diana, Countess of Stacpoole, had died with the husband she loathed.
Beloved wife of
. . .
I'm nothing without him. That was the irony. He'd defined her, not merely as his Countess, but as upholder of his honour, soother of the wounds he inflicted, underminer of his more terrible obsessions. He'd been her purpose, even if that purpose had been amelioration, sometimes sabotage, of his actions. Years of it. She had no other. Thirty-nine next birthday and she was now of no use to a living soul except to vacate the space she'd occupied.
She heard screams and in her exhaustion turned automatically to go back to the sickroom but, of course, they were Alice's. In view of the news from France, Robert, like a good courtier, should return to his place by the King immediately and Alice was lamenting as if her husband were off to battle rather than a palace.
, come tell him he mustn't leave or I shall go
Yes, well. Alice liked an audience for her hysterics. Was being an audience a purpose? No, merely a function. She left the room to perform it.
To humour his wife, Robert said he would not go until tomorrow; the King would understand he had just buried his father.
Even so, Alice did not see fit to recover until late evening; the advent of France into the war causing her to see danger everywhere. âYou must ask the King to give you guards. John Paul Jones will try and capture you, like he did the Earl of Selkirk.'
Alice, thought the Dowager, must be the only young woman who had not found that most recent raid by an American privateer a tiny bit thrilling. The papers had made much of it in apparent horror but the ghost of Robin Hood had been called up and, as always with the English weakness for daring, Mr Paul Jones's brigandage was taking on a hue of romance.
Robert said: âMy dear, the raid was a failure.'
Alice refused comfort. John Paul Jones, a Scotsman who'd joined the American side, was scouring his native coast to take an earl hostage. Robert was an earl.
, John Paul Jones was out to capture Robert. âTrue, the Earl was absent on this occasion but his Countess was
. He took her silver service.'
âI heard he returned it,' the Dowager joined in. âIn any case, we may comfort ourselves that Robert will be in London and not in a Scottish castle exposed to the sea. Mr Jones is hardly likely to sail up the Thames to get him.'
Alice was not so sure; she was enjoying her horrors. It wasn't until late evening that she remembered the letter and handed it to her mother-in-law.
âYou will forgive me for overlooking it, Mama. It carried my title of course . . .
peculiar, sent on from Paris, not that I read it . . . the
, I wondered to show it to you at all but Robert said . . . who
Salt and sun on her face, bare feet, a shrimping net, terracotta-coloured cliffs against blue sky . . .
Careful not to show haste, the Dowager turned to the last page to see the signature and was caught by the final, disjointed paragraph. â. . . you are my long hope, dear soul . . . I am in great fear . . . as you too have a son . . . Your respectful servant, Martha Grayle (nÃ©e Pardoe).'
She looked up to find Alice and Robert watching her.
Deliberately, she yawned. âI shall retire, I think. Good night, my dears.'
âBut will you not read the letter?' Alice could hardly bear it.
âIn bed perhaps.' Alice had waited to give it to her, she could now wait for a reaction to it. The whirligig of time brought in its petty revenges.
Joan was nodding in a bedroom chair, waiting to undress her, but when the areas that couldn't be reached by the wearer had been unbuttoned and unhooked, Diana told her to go to bed. âI will do the rest myself.'
âVery well, my dear.'
âJoan, do you remember Martha Pardoe?'
âTorbay.' The old woman's voice was fond.
âMarried that Yankee and went off to Americy.'
âHappy days they was.'
She couldn't wait for reminiscence. âGood night.'
With her mourning robes draped around her shoulders, the Dowager picked up the letter that had circumvented the cessation of mail between rebel and mother countries. Somewhere on its long journey from Virginia to France to London to Bedfordshire it had received a slap of salt water so that the bottom left-hand quarter of each page was indecipherable.
Martha had penned a superscription on its exterior page, presumably with a covering letter, for the unknown person in Paris who'd been charged with sending it on to England: âTo be forwarded to the Countess of Stacpoole in England. Haste. Haste.' Martha had been lucky; from this moment on there would be an embargo on general mail from France, just as from America; the letter had beaten the declaration of war by a short head.
The fact that Martha had written only on one side of each of her two pages indicated that, however personally distressed, she was in easy circumstances; paper of quality such as this was expensive.
She'd begun formally enough:
Respectful greetings to Your Ladyship, if I am so Fortunate that your eyes should see this letter. Of your Gracious Kindness forgive this Plea from an old acquaintance who would make so Bold as to remind Your Ladyship of glad Times in Torbay when you and she were Children undivided by sea or War. Pray God may resolve the Conflict between our Countries. I shall not Weary you with Remembrance, loving though it is to me, but Proceed to the case of my son, Forrest Grayle, who is but eighteen years old . . .
Here the water stain obscured the beginnings of several lines and Martha's writing, which had begun neatly, began to sprawl as agitation seized her so that making sense of it caused the Dowager's brow to wrinkle. She got up from the dressing-table stool and went to the lamp on the Louis Quinze table to turn up the wick, unconscious that she was doing so. â. . . such a desire that all may have Liberty as has caused Concern to his . . . nothing would satisfy but that he Volunteer for our navy . . . John Paul Jones in France to take possession of a new vessel built there . . .'
Now the relief of a new page, though the penmanship was worse and punctuation virtually nonexistent.
O Diana word has it the
is Captured and its Men taken to England and imprisoned for rebels while I say Nothing of this for it is War yet there are tales of what is done to men captured by King George's army here in the South as would break the Heart of any Woman, be she English or American . . .
Here, again, the interruption of the water stain.
whether my husband would have me write, but he is dead these . . . I beseech you, in the name of Happier days, as you are a Mother and a . . . will know him if you remember my Brother whom you met that once at . . . the Likeness is so Exact that it doth bring Tears every time I . . . you can do if you can do any Thing for my boy in the name of Our . . .
Here the writing became enormous: âFor you are my long hope, dear soul . . . I am in great fear . . . as you too have a son . . . for our old friendship . . .' Slowly, the Dowager smoothed the letter flat and put it between the leaves of the bible lying on the table.
She could do nothing, of course.
do nothing. As her daughter-in-law said, the letter was an impertinence. Martha had expressed no regret for her adopted country's rebellion; indeed, supposing her own interpretation to be correct, the woman had actually referred to the American fleet as âour navy'.
If the boy Forrestâwhat like of name was that?âis so enthusiastic to get rid of his rightful King, let him enthuse in prison as he deserves.
Somewhat deliberately, the Dowager yawned, stepped out of her mourning and went to bed.
Seagulls yelping. Petticoats pinned up. Rock pools. Martha's hair red-gold in the sun. The tide like icy bracelets around the ankles. A near-lunacy of freedom. The stolen summers of 1750 and 1751.
The Dowager got up, wrapped herself in a robe, read the letter again, put it back in the bible, tugged the bell-pull. âFetch Tobias.'
Too much effort, Martha, even if I would. Which I won't. Too tired.
âAh, Tobias. I've forgotten, did his lordship buy you in Virginia?'
âBarbadoth, your ladyship. Thlave market. He liked my lithp.'
Another of Aymer's japes, this time during his tour of his plantations; he'd sent the man back to England with a label attached to the slave collar: âA prethent from the Wetht Indieth.' It was sheer good fortune that Tobias, bought as a joke, had proved an excellent and intelligent servant.
âNot near the Virginian plantations, then. Tobacco and such.' She had no idea of that hemisphere's geography.
âOnly sugar in Barbadoth, ladyship.'
âVery well. You may go.'
She was surprised at how very much she'd wished to discuss the letter with Tobias, and with Joan, but even to such trusted people as these she would not do so; one did not air one's concerns with servants.
Diana went back to bed.
She got up and sat out on the balcony. As if it were trying to make up for her discontent with the day, the night had redoubled the scent of roses and added new-mown grass and cypresses, but these were landlocked smells; the Dowager sniffed in vain for the tang of sea.
She had long ago packed away the summers of '50 and '51 as a happiness too unbearable to remember, committed them to dutiful oblivion in a box that had now come floating back to her on an errant tide.
They had been stolen summers in any case; she shouldn't really have had them but her parents had been on the Grand Tour, there was fear of plague in London, and the Pomeroy great-aunt with whom she'd been sent to stay had been wonderfully old and sleepy, uncaring that her eleven-year-old charge went down to the beach each day with only a parlour maid called Joan as chaperone to play with a twelve-year-old called Martha.
Devon. Her first and only visit to the county from which her family and its wealth had sprung. A Queen Anne house on the top of one of seven hills looking loftily down on the tiny, square harbour of Torquay.
She listened to her own childish voice excitedly piping down years that had bled all excitement from it.
âIs this the house we Pomeroys come from, Aunt? Sir Walter's house?'
âOf course not, child. It is much too modern. Sir Walter's home was
T'Gallants at Babbs Cove, a very old and uncomfortable building, many miles along the coast.'
âShall I see it while I am here?'
âNo. It is rented out.'
âBut was Sir Walter a pirate, as they say, Aunt? I should so like him to have been a pirate.'
âI should not. He is entitled to our gratitude as our progenitor and we must not speak ill of him. Now go and play.'
But if she was disallowed a piratical ancestor, there were pirates a-plenty down on the beach where Joan took her and allowed her to paddle and walk on pebbles the size and shape of swans' eggs. At least, they looked like pirates in their petticoat-breeches and tarry jackets.
If she'd cut her way through jungle and discovered a lost civilization, it could have been no more exotic to her than that Devon beach. Hermit crabs and fishermen, both equally strange; starfish; soft cliffs pitted with caves and eyries, dolphins larking in the bay: there was nothing to disappoint, everything to amaze.
And Martha, motherless daughter of an indulgent, dissenting Torbay importer. Martha, who was joyful and kind, who knew about menstruation and how babies were made (until then a rather nasty mystery), who could row a boat and dislodge limpets, who wore no stays and, though she was literate, spoke no French and didn't care that she didn't. Martha, who had a brother like a young Viking who didn't notice her but for whom the even younger Diana conceived a delightful, hopeless passionâdelightful because it was hopelessâand would have died rather than reveal it but secretly scratched his and her entwined initials in sandstone for the tide to erase.
For the first time in her life she'd encountered people who talked to her, in accents thick as cream, without watching their words, who knew no servitude except to the tide. She'd been shocked and exhilarated.
But after another summer, as astonishing as the first, the parents had come back, the great-aunt died and the Queen Anne house sold. She and Martha had written to each other for the next few years. Martha had married surprisingly well; a visiting American who traded with her father had taken one look and swept her off to his tobacco plantations in Virginia.