The Berkeley Trilogy is novelised biography, the story of Mary Cole, 5th Countess of Berkeley.
In June, when Susan came down from Town for her niece’s christening, accompanied by James Perry of the Morning Chronicle, things took a bizarre turn. The long and the short of it was that he and Mary fell in love.
When he arrived, soberly apparelled beside Susan in pink quilted satin, he flung down his hat and held out his arms, crushing Mary to his breast in brotherly fashion.
“Why, lassie, you found your way home.”
From that instant, the sympathy which had taken root at the Lenten masque more than two years ago, burgeoned into bud. Mary could not describe or excuse the sweet madness which swept over her at beholding him. That species of passion created an incandescent sphere of its own, immobilising reason. Nevertheless, it was the soul of sanity after the machinations of Lord Berkeley.
“You were kindness itself,” Mary recalled. “When I was in desperate want of a friend, you were there and never looked for a single favour in return.”
“Well, I am now come to make a wee claim on your hospitality. Och, but you are tired and lily-pale.”
The Scots lawyer saluted Mrs Cole and Ann with jocular warmth. Anxious for something to do, Susannah put on the kettle to boil and brought out the new Coalport teapot which had been bought for a song at a warehouse on the quay dealing in slightly imperfect goods from the Black Country. Mary could not tell what their guest made of it all, but he graciously sat beside her on the horsehair sofa and interested himself in the bundle of rags she had cut into strips ready for knotting on to a canvas backing for a rug, a commonplace craft in households like theirs which did not merit the attention he paid it. Perhaps he would have preferred to see her embroidering a sampler, as the fine ladies did, or submerged in a volume of plangent verse on Ettrick’s fair forest and the bloody braes of Yarrow. For him, Mary wished she could boast these refinements. Not that he had never tasted poverty, but he strongly aspired to make a name for himself among the nation’s rulers by dint of hard work and a finely-tooled brain.
James Perry put up at The Bell Inn for five days and visited the Coles every day. He filled the compact sitting room in Southgate Street with his exuberance, spreading strongly-veined hands to emphasise a theme. He seemed quite at home among them, though Mary could not think they provided a stimulus for a man of his vigorous intellect. Away from his London chambers, the brusque Scottish accent broadened and was tempered by a blend of roguishness and the lilting sensitivity of the Border poets. He sang The Flowers of the Forest in a resonant baritone voice. He made his audience yearn for other times and places. He threw open new landscapes, mountains and moors and silver-blue lochs, that men fought and died for, so that Mary mourned the Jacobites’ lost cause, Catholics and Pretenders all. She lived for his smile, for the whimsical eyes that were like cairngorm stones seen through clear water and which occasionally startled hers with a burning tenderness. In her innocence, she longed to express the most wholesome and natural affection towards him which circumstances denied. No thought of disloyalty entered her head.
Breaking with tradition, the smallest Farren was christened at St. Mary de Crypt whose parish boundaries encompassed that part of Southgate Street where they now lived. She was named Susannah Perry after her grandmother and her godfather who generously bought her a silver porringer at Mayer’s shop.
It was the hottest Whitsuntide any of them could remember and they took a picnic and spread themselves upon College Green in the lea of the Abbey. Sunlight saturated the chestnut leaves and the sugar-cone blossoms scarcely stirred. Henry and Liam romped with a bobbin and string. The baby rebelled against the heat and nothing would soothe her but that Granny should wheel her in her basket perambulator about the Green. Susan languished in the shade of a parasol and regaled Ann and Will and Billy with her adventures at Bagnigge Wells on May Day. James Perry, meanwhile, strove to elucidate the tangled plot of a Restoration comedy which had amused him in London. Mary was charmed by the hypnotic rhythm of the sentences. He had been watchful of the quartet with their heads together and presently proposed that he and Mary take refuge in the cool of the Abbey.
They walked in silence about the stately tombs decked with painted effigies of the dead, rapt in the transcendent calm of space and time. Upon reaching the Lady Chapel, Perry sought Mary’s hand and fastened it in his own. She could feel a strong pulse beating there and a quicksilver shock flowed through her. He was half-smiling, half-grave.
“I’ve tried my damnedest to be alone with you and have not succeeded until now. Often, while I have been sporting the oak, you have entered my thoughts and sometimes I have been tormented by the conviction that you were unhappy. Thankfully, I see it is not so….”
“Oh!” exclaimed Mary in dismay. “You must not think….”
Before she had done faltering, he stifled her mouth with a most unbrotherly kiss. Her blood fizzed as though from potent cider fumes and she found herself incapable of resistance. He was too honest, when it was done, to apologise for the liberty and she was distressed to have responded as she did.
“We must not. I….I can never care for you....only as an acquaintance.”
At that, he burst into laughter. “Then I shall earnestly hope to be here when you have a change of heart! I’m persuaded I have not imagined those pensive glances, the tender affinity….”
In panic, Mary gabbled a swarm of objections.
“You’re too honourable a man to be dallying,” she said, “and there can be no proper connection between the likes of you and me. You have a promising career ahead of you and one day you’ll be rich and much talked of in high places. I should be the most miserable of beings when you learned to despise me for my want of education.”
He sat down in a pew and patiently drew her down beside him.
“You will always be beautiful. When you are old and the smiling and suffering have etched themselves upon your countenance, your spirit will shine through. Any man must pay homage to that. Don’t you think I have wrestled with doubts – yes, I must be frank – but, lassie, I love you sore. There is no other woman I want for my wife. You are the inspiration of all my endeavours.”
Oh James, my dearest, my truest friend, Mary thought wildly, if only I could pour out the whole sorry tale to you. If only I were free! Had you been silent, I could have woven you into the texture of my life, seen you, heard you, touched the quick of you, watched you come and go. God knows I would willingly have conquered that other drive for togetherness. Now it is impossible. You will hate me for rejecting you so cruelly.
The saints in the gem-bright windows did not stir. The brass cross on the altar gleamed. “Sir, I cannot marry you,” she told him, jumping up. “It is written in the stars. I do not….cannot love you.”
She hadn’t gone more than two paces when he caught her wrist and swung her round, his fine eyes brilliant with pained indignation. “You lie! Why are you lying when you were born so honest?”
In a forced whisper, she urged him to desist lest this unseemly scene be remarked.
“You owe me an answer.”
“Oh, sir, let me go,” she implored him. “I mustn’t see you again. Ever!”
She ran out through the cloisters, into the blinding sunshine, across the daisy-flecked green, not stopping to look for the others. Hardly caring where her feet led, she hurried up Westgate, turned the corner and, gaining Ann’s door, sought the key under the pelargonium pot. Shaking uncontrollably, she stabbed it into the keyhole and, in the refuge of the cottage, wept and wept and inveighed against God for denying her the love of a good man and her one chance of contentment. She had tried to do what was right, and not out of piety, but because she trusted that all would turn out for the best if she stuck to the faith. Her reward had been humiliation and heartache and a forbidden taste of heaven. To preserve truth and virtue, she had had to lie.
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...