William Fitzhardinge Berkeley (Lord Dursley) eldest son of Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley and Mary Cole who was kidnapped and duped by a fake marriage.
An excerpt from the forthcoming THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Book Two of the Berkeley Trilogy.
It is 1810 and, by now, the tapestry is woven with many new threads of uneven tension as the lineage is set to be hotly contested.
It did not occur to Lord Dursley that history was repeating itself. This was due in part to wilful ignorance. His mother's history had been the dynasty's stumbling block and the less he knew, the more free he felt to prevaricate.
He was twenty-three and ostensibly his own man, whose London base was a quiet property in shadowy Fitzhardinge Street, linking Manchester and Portman Squares. Around the corner lived his comrade, Edward Berkeley Portman, whose Tudor ancestor had been Chief Justice of the King's Bench and whose father, a rich magnate, had developed the area, eventually handing over to his son, then an MP for Boroughbridge, and now for Dorset.
If Dursley could be said to have any stabilising influence in his life, apart from his troublesome mama, it was Teddy Portman. He was about the same age as Lord Craven and filled a role that was half-avuncular, half-crony. His wife, Lucy, was a clergy daughter so that an air of order and genteel classicism pervaded the house, notwithstanding a couple of boisterous children. In fact, Portman was one of the few people with whom Dursley could say he felt truly adult.
In the early spring of 1810, Dursley as good as vacated his town house and availed himself of an offered apartment under the Portmans' roof. His friends knew no details, but understood he had been obliged to give shelter to a person in compromised circumstances. They rightly assumed the party to be female. The fact was that Jane Baldwin had gone to ground for several months at his address in much the same way his father had cloistered his mother when he was born. The lady had so successfully played off family and friends against each other by peddling vague tales of her whereabouts, they all thought she must be with one of the others. That she was known to be elusive could only bolster the myth. By now, she was bored and awaited her confinement with impatience.
Amidst the hullabaloo surrounding the Gloucester Elections and his entry into Parliament, Dursley had given little thought to Jane Baldwin's future and that of the child. Yet he was dimly conscious of psychic weight and of being in an unnerving state of transition. The Portmans assumed it was caused by unease about his reception into the nation's highest forum.
"Only consider, my dear," said Lucy Portman, "he may not be a callow youth, but he has no experience to speak of. He is scarcely in a way to be taking the cares of the county upon his shoulders."
"And he has a formidable opponent in Beaufort," agreed her husband. "Berkeley has no mind for politics. The subtleties are quite beyond his intellect and, I believe, his heart. Indeed he is no example of statesmanship."
On the last day of May, things came to a head. In deep chagrin, Dursley startled Portman at his desk, disrupting all contemplation of architects plans for ordered squares and crescents in the Italian style.
"The devil, Portman! I'm prodigious glad to find you in!"
"What in the name of all that's sacred...?" began his friend, smartly unbending his posture.
The Viscount began to pace the floor. "I have this afternoon suffered the most damnable humiliation in the House!"
"It transpires that a posse of Gloucester freeholders has addressed a petition to the Commons denying my fitness to represent them."
"I don't understand."
"They accuse me of failing to furnish the Clerk of the House with particulars of my birth and status before taking my seat. I fumed, I can tell you! I sat there having to listen whilst the cursed thing was read out."
"Not necessary," said Portman. "Eldest son of a peer don't have to give details. Not compulsory. Not since George II. It is the Commons, after all."
Dursley swept an arm in the direction of the Thames. "They say I'm not the son of a peer! An imposter! My election is therefore void. They demand a writ that another candidate be elected in my place."
"A monstrous calumny, sir! My oath upon it!" Portman frowned darkly, searching the skyline for inspiration. A host of misgivings flocked to mind. Never before had the Berkeley scandal implied identity fraud. The case had turned merely upon the validity of the 1785 marriage.
"Who's behind it, I'd like to know? Who's out there, poised to stab me in the back?"
Even as he spoke, the image of Amy Knight, now Mrs Ball, sprang to the forefront of Dursley's mind. He had spotted her from the civic carriage, beside the gangling youth purported to be his half-brother. He was sure the Earl would have bought her off, on pain of jail, so what would she hope to gain if she were the instigator? Some kind of 'scorched earth' satisfaction? A driving ambition to bring him down and see Johnny rise to power among the Gloucester Corporation? Who knew where such a female might secure influence? Maybe her husband turned a blind eye. He noted that she was elegantly dressed on Election Day and stood out from the crowd. Had wealth accrued from the stage and from Mr Ball's success as a hotelier?
"This will not go well with his lordship," said Portman. "Fate could not have dealt a more wounding blow, hot on the heels of success."
"In his present state, it could kill him!"
"You will put up a good fight, I am sure, sir."
It was all coming home to him, the fragments of gossip, the guarded phrases between his parents, the air of reservation among the elders of government. It was as if they didn't quite trust him. He began to realise the strength of public opinion and that it mattered in the real world. At the Castle, he had been bred to inherit, taught that his position could not justifiably be contested. The Berkeley reputation stood foursquare.
"There will be an inquest," Dursley groaned. "The jackals must be fed."
"It is the price of a civilised society, I fear. The law has to be satisfied.'
"According to my father, law is mind without reason. For once, I am in agreement ."
"Ah, Aristotle, I believe."
Next day, distinguished lawyers were hastily raking through the ashes of the past and finding embers still hot. The Countess' ancestry was aired, the first marriage, the rationale behind the long secrecy. Fitz's baptism at St George's, Hanover Square, describing his mother as Mary Cole, was inspected and compared with Moreton's at St Martin-in-the-Fields, who had been registered as Thomas Moreton Fitzhardinge (Lord Dursley), a damning indictment if ever there was one. It was hardly helped that a matter of a mere six weeks ago, Lord Berkeley had shakily appended an explanation in the presence of Dr Hamilton, the vicar.
This child was erroneously described as Lord Dursley, he being my fifth son born in lawful wedlock.
BERKELEY, April 19, 1810.
The petition lay on the table for five days before being put to the vote. Thankfully for Dursley, it was rejected ninety-one votes to forty-six. He could breath again. For now. A minority of one third was not inconsequential.
Tucked away in Gloucestershire, Lord Berkeley's visage crumpled like grey tissue and his slight stoop withered a little further.
Update: June, 2013 Book Two to be published soon!
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