Berkeley’s fearsome aspect had suffered no change when, the following day, his friend called again and was shown into the Morning Room. He and Mary were in the conservatory, in the thick of a domestic argument. Prescott caught them gesticulating through the glass and was glad that his own intimate arrangements could be enjoyed at arm’s length. He could not hear what was being said, but the tenor of the sentences rose and fell on an alarming gradient.
“Yesterday, you betrayed a deplorable want of education!” stormed his lordship.
“How did I?”
“You criticised the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Clarence and, by extension, me, for not sharing your plebeian virtue.”
“How can the goings-on at Carlton House, among the highest in the land, be right in anyone’s book? How are they more sophisticated than a farmhand who tumbles his wenches in the woods and cornfields?” A vision of James Perry, all those years ago, stunned Mary with physical pain in the solar plexus. He would have done right by her, with or without children. “There was someone who wanted to wed me once,” she recollected with so wistful a sadness, it seared Berkeley’s nerves. “A professional gentleman. Not rich, but of good standing. Well-respected. But you had ruined me before the altar and I sent him away, thinking to make your wrong right. I had no idea that I had been duped, not then.”
“When? When did this happen?”
“You forsook me for months to save your reputation after we were married.”
“In London? In Gloucester? You must have loved him.”
“Oh, do not harangue me with these questions! Where’s the point now?”
It was decided that, for a while, Mary and the children should retreat to Cranford. Prescott offered to accompany her there and, in the carriage, told her that Berkeley had threatened to put her away, ‘if it continued’.
The Admiral would never forget the proud turn of her head, the calm self-possession, her aqueous gaze measuring the outer landscape. “He dare not!” He saw that ties lasting a round dozen years inevitably embraced truths he could not fathom. The Admiral did not dislike Mary in the least, but her pious demands were another matter.
The echoes vanished from Berkeley House. Left alone to brood within its empty rooms, the shaky edifice of the Earl’s life suddenly collapsed inwards upon him.
The future had been determined years ago! He had long sunk all he had into a joint existence with Mary. What if he had driven her away? Upon her own admission, she was not proof against the charms of other fellows. He would need to know how the estate was run, else be made to look very foolish. This was important in any case, the Earl realised grimly, for, while Mary was aware of his gambling, there were follies, now deeply regretted, the accounts must never reveal. He was more likely to gain Mary’s goodwill, and she to trust him, if they were a team.
What stood out in bold relief was that, if Berkeley were to obtain a marriage licence, he would have to declare himself a bachelor and Mary, a spinster, thus renouncing the legend of a former ceremony and all the rights accruing to it. But as he turned this over in his mind, another audacious plan began to fizzle and spark its way to the powder barrel.
THE WOLF AND THE LAMB, Book One of the Berkeley Trilogy
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